West Bay Opera (WBO) is one of the most remarkable and longest-lived performing arts organizations in the Palo Alto region. It's also the second-oldest opera company west of the Mississippi, and this week, it celebrates its 60th year.
The company's founding parents, Henry and Maria Holt (see sidebar), would be thrilled and proud of what they had wrought if they could experience its latest production of one of the most challenging of operatic masterworks. West Bay Opera's "Rigoletto" runs Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 24 and 25, at Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre.
The closely interwoven music drama embraces some of the most familiar tunes in all opera, including "Caro nome" and "La donna e mobile" as well as the fabled quartet from the last act, "Bella figlia dell'amore." But these are just the glittering highlights. There are many other musical gems in this richly inventive score, which WBO first staged in May of 1983.
Today, despite its meager annual budget of $500,000, its tiny stage and its 21-piece orchestra, West Bay's cast of outstanding voices and its thoughtful creative team have managed to stage a "Rigoletto" companies many times its size would envy. It is the ultimate in grand opera on an intimate scale.
"Rigoletto" is derived from "Le roi s'amuse," a scandalous Victor Hugo play about France's first king. That production was shut by censors after one performance in Paris in 1832. Guiseppe Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, reset the play in the Italian ducal court of Mantua. They somehow got by the Venetian censors. Opening in 1851, it remains one of the most performed of all of Verdi's works.
The opera tells the tragic tale of the hunchbacked court jester who makes the mistake of mocking an aggrieved father whose daughter has been seduced by the lecherous Duke of Mantua. The father, Monterone, lays a curse on Rigoletto for his heartless taunting.
The curse is prophetic: In later years, the jester's own daughter, Gilda, is debauched in turn by the same despicable duke. In his wrath, Rigoletto hires an assassin to kill the man and deliver his body in a sack at a tavern. When Rigoletto arrives to claim the body and prepares to dump it in a river, he hears the duke singing his jaunty "La donna e mobile" ("Woman is fickle"). Shocked, he opens the sack to discover the dying Gilda, who tells him she substituted her life for the duke's because of their love. The curse -- "Maledizione!" -- has been fulfilled.
In the title role is Krassen Karagiozov, a brilliant singer-actor whose solid baritone voice proves equal to the biting satire of the first act as well as to the gripping appeal for pity he later makes to the noblemen who kidnap Gilda for the duke's pleasure. A native of Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, Karagiozov trained there and in the U.S., including four years as a resident artist with Opera San Jose. In singing the wrenching "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata" ("Courtiers, vile damned race"), he hits a peak of expressive characterization equal to that in any opera.
Singing the role of Gilda is soprano Christine Capsuto, whose rich, buttery voice spans the coloratura, lyric and spinto ranges. She expresses her character's naive youthful innocence and heartfelt fragility, but also captures Gilda's grit and determination. Her only aria, "Caro nome" ("Sweet name") tells of the poor student she meets in church who turns out to be the wolfish duke. She also is a key part of the famed quartet in the third act.
As the Duke of Mantua, tenor James Callon gives forth with a sweet high tone, especially in the "La donna e mobile" aria. His acting, however, conveys neither the rakishness nor the passion required by the role.
Making an important contribution in a lesser role is the ever-reliable Philip Skinner, whose powerful bass gives added heft to the dark presence of Sparafucile, the assassin. Skinner is a veteran of more than 50 San Francisco Opera productions and is also a frequent WBO performer. Equally vital to the opera's dramatic conclusion is Anna Yelizarova, who brings her distinctive and polished contralto singing to the role of Maddalena, Sparafucile's sister. Although she sings only in the final act, Yelizarova demonstrates her vocal excellence in both quartet and trio.
Other important roles in the supporting cast include Justin Scott Bays as the courtier, Marullo; the wronged nobleman Count Monterone as sung by Kiril Havezov; mezzo-soprano Alexandra Mena as Gilda's nurse, Giovanna; and mezzo-soprano Katherine Trimble as the Countess Ceprano, a reluctant victim of the duke's ardor.
Conductor Michel Singher produces some magical sound from the small pit orchestra. His baton closely guides the singers, and his impeccable timing drives the music and shapes the heightening drama. This is especially evident in Rigoletto's "Pari siamo" ("We are alike"), in which he remarks of the assassin, "We are two of a kind: My weapon is my tongue, his is a dagger."
According to WBO stage director David Ostwald, the opera is much more than a senseless tragedy. As he explained it, "Rigoletto, in all its dark ferocity, appears to be a piece about despair, but I believe it offers a positive lesson. It allows us to taste a world where there is no place for compassion. In this way, it can open our eyes and hearts to treating ourselves, all other beings and our planet more kindly."
Other members of the creative team include set designer Jean Francois Revon, who makes much with a limited budget including multiple two-story sets, and Abra Berman, whose costumes are colorful in the ballroom opening and suitably grim for the remainder. Nick Kumamoto's lighting scheme enhances the shifting moods from light to dark.
Verdi described the character of Rigoletto as badly deformed and absurd, yet inwardly full of love. Is he a demon, or is he simply a father who loves his daughter too much? Operagoers who experience this gripping production will have to decide for themselves. They will be joining the many thousands who have mulled the lessons of "Rigoletto" over the past 164 years.
What: "Rigoletto," presented by West Bay Opera. Sung in Italian with English supertitles.
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Saturday, Oct. 24, 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 25, 2 p.m.
Info: Go to westbayopera.org or call 650-424-9999.
THE PARENTS OF PALO ALTO OPERA
West Bay Opera's founding couple established strong roots
Though they ultimately created one of Palo Alto's most enduring cultural institutions, West Bay Opera founders Henry and Maria Holt began their immersion in classical music nearly 6,000 miles from the Bay Area.
Henry Holt was born Hans Horvitz in a small Czech town, Mlada Boleslav, which in 1909 was part of the far-flung Austro-Hungarian empire.
The Horvitz family moved to Vienna, where Hans showed musical talent before he entered kindergarten. His pianistic accomplishment grew under the tutelage of renowned music professor Alexander Wunderer and later Josef Hofmann. By the time he finished formal studies in both piano performance and conducting at Vienna's Imperial Academy of Music and the Performing Arts in the late 1920s, Horvitz was already doing piano solos under Arturo Toscanini and the Vienna Philharmonic. In 1936, he was first conductor of the Vienna State Opera.
Working in the State Opera gained him the trust of major operatic stars of the day, and as a result, Horvitz wound up as an accompanist on a 1935 tour of American recital halls. The brief taste of the U.S. made it clear to him where his future would be. He and his bride, Maria Adler, managed to get out of Austria in 1938, just weeks before the country was "annexed" to Nazi Germany, with its virulent anti-semitism.
In New York, Horvitz took the stage name Henry Holt and quickly became busy accompanying America's best-known opera singers on the piano, co-founding the First Piano Quartet, performing on radio and teaching. Maria joined a professional photo studio. In 1943, the army sent Henry to the Aleutian Islands, where for two years his musical talents were pressed into service both in performance and on radio.
Discharged to California, the couple settled in Palo Alto, where Henry Holt soon became the preeminent exponent of classical music on the Midpeninsula. He became the conductor of the Palo Alto String Sinfonietta and director of the First Presbyterian Church choir as well as the West Coast accompanist for international opera singers Lily Pons, Licia Albanese, Cesare Siepi, Jan Peerce, Richard Tucker and a dozen more. But Holt saw as his main goal the musical education of the community -- and especially young people -- through lectures and courses.
A decade after his arrival here, he began regular "Scenes from Operas," which led in 1956 the formation of West Bay Opera and the production of full-scale operatic works. He ran WBO until his death in 1969.
Maria, not a musician but a talented manager, took over for nearly 30 years, until her death in 1996. She continued the tradition of producing full-scale productions of the major operas as well as many rarities and contemporary works.
Today, under the direction of conductor Jose Luis Moscovich, West Bay Opera is working to establish a greater year-round presence beyond the three operas now scheduled annually. This new frontier for the company will likely include summer workshops of new operas, concert versions and ways to showcase young talent: all efforts the Holts would most certainly have applauded.