OperaReview: Doubleheader full of grand passion

You haven’t lived fully until hearing opera in a small Italian town — the smaller the better. Forget the niceties of production values and flawless performances; instead, you can revel in the most essential component of the genre: passion.

The good news is that there is no need for long-distance travel. You get unbridled, sweeping, rousing operatic passion right in the heart of Silicon Valley. West Bay Opera, 52, the West Coast’s second-oldest company (after San Francisco, 84), is presenting some new and young talent in two of opera’s most heated potboilers. The “Cav/Pag” doubleheader — Mascagni’s 1890 “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s 1892 “Pagliacci” — seethes with love, betrayal, revenge, murder, and music to match.

In West Bay Opera’s tiny Lucie Stern Theatre, an overwhelming, manic act paced an overall fine musical performance from a small, gallant orchestra under General Director José Luis Moscovich’s baton. The powerful star turn came from one of a half dozen singers making their debut: Gail Sullivan, in the role of Santuzza.

Instead of portraying a woman hurt by her faithless lover (Vincent Chambers, making a promising, sweet-voiced debut as Turiddu), the soprano gripped the audience with an outsized vocal and dramatic presence of stunning intensity. No lost soul, this Santuzza is a veritable Electra, in search of vengeance from the get-go. So great is the intensity of Sullivan’s vocal performance that instead of just sticking out of the ensemble, it lifts the entire production. (It was a relief to learn from the program notes that off-stage Sullivan has a lighter side. With experience in European opera houses, she has written a guide for auditioning singers, titled “Kein’ Angst, Baby!,” the Australian edition presumably called “No Worries.”)

Sullivan and Sharon Maxwell alternate as Santuzza, and as Nedda in “Pagliacci.” At Sunday’s performance, Maxwell’s vocal performance built well to the climactic final scene, but dramatically, her awkward hand-waving made her look more authentic as the commedia dell’arte Colombina.

Debuts in “Pagliacci” include David Hodgson as Tonio (singing a vital, robust Prologue) and the fresh-voiced Scott Six as Canio, singing up a storm.

Cathleen Candia’s Lola in “Cavalleria” is an impressively simple, effective performance. (The alternate cast Lola is Raeka Shehabi-Yaghmai, whom I haven’t heard since her promising S.F. Conservatory days; she too must be right for the role.)

Both operas are directed by José Maria Condemi and designed by Jean-Francois Revon, who overcame obvious budget problems with talent and imagination. The “Cavalleria” set is simple, functional, giving the feel of a Sicilian village; there is a “working model” of a big truck serving as the platform for the “Pagliacci” show. Condemi is moving the chorus (which sounds better than in any previous WBO show I heard) in intriguing, functional formations; the director’s only misstep is the horizontal love scene in “Pagliacci,” more hilarious than amorous.

Special credit to the 27-member orchestra squeezed into the makeshift pit, playing through a few wrong notes and imbalances to an impressive total performance, peaking in the right places, the right way. Tina Anderson is concertmaster, Janet Lynch-Gillespie principal viola, Janet Withharm principal cello, woodwind principals include Michelle Caimotto (flute), Peter Lemberg (oboe, the whole “section”), Karen Sremac (clarinet), and Alice Benjamin (bassoon).

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