The title for this report seemed more attention grabbing than my alternate title of “An Italian Confection Well Made” and more in the comedic spirit of the opera itself. There are underlying themes we could get serious about, but The Elixir of Love (1832) is meant to be enjoyed, and the Virginia Opera’s production is a pleasure from beginning to end. I could stop there, right? But you know I am not going to.
Let’s start with the comedy. The composer of The Elixir of Love (L’elisir d’amore in Italian) is Gaetano Donizetti and the librettist is Felice Romani; this is the A-team of its time. The story revolves around a young peasant Nemorino’s efforts to advance his cause with Adina, a wealthy landowner. Nemorino is honest and sincere in love, but timid in expressing it. Adina is at first unsure of Nemorino’s intentions and courage and instead shows interest in the attention paid her by the egotistical and audacious Sergeant Belcore, accepting his proposal to wed…in good time. Ah, but along comes the traveling medicine man Dr. Dulcamara who professes to be selling a potion that will cure whatever is wrong with you. He assures Nemorino that if he drinks the potion (actually Bordeaux wine) women will find him irresistible, and then they do, though not for the reason he thinks. With likeable, developing characters and comedic plot twists, the A-team does a nice job of causing us to laugh, all the while feeling the longing, heartache, and anxiety in Nemorino’s and Adina’s evolving relationship, and then rejoice when true love triumphs.
I read a comment that the humor might have been a little too slapstick in this production. I take a different view. If you saw Washington National Opera’s The Barber of Seville last season you saw a production that was over the top, IMHO. But in truth, both comedies are rooted in the early Italian theater known as Commedia Dell’arte, which used stock characters to create humor based on human foibles of the times (and continuing to present day). In this case, Director Kyle Lang has gotten it right. Elixir is meant to be funny and this one is.
left: Sergeant Belcore played by Corey Crider arrives to court Adina played by Cecilia Violetta Lopéz. right: Dr. Dulcamara extols his potion to the villagers. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.
Let’s move on to the music. Operas are typically written over a period of at least months and sometimes years. Donizetti dashed this one off in six weeks, and yet for a dozen years, it was the most often performed opera in Italy. Even today it is consistently in the top twenty operas in terms of performances and edges out the tragic Lucia di Lammermoor, his other top seller which also stays in the top twenty, as his most popular opera. Why? The music. Oh, it’s got a good story, but listening to the music and arias in Elixir is like listening to a recording of opera’s greatest hits; it is just one beautiful tune after another. It was hearing a recording of Birgit Nilsson singing Turandot that lured me into trying opera, but it was a recording of Elixir with Luciano Pavarotti and Kathleen Battle that sealed the deal (and made me a huge fan of Ms. Battle). Adam Turner and the Virginia Opera Orchestra delivered Donizetti’s music beautifully and seamlessly coordinated with the singers, allowing me to enjoy the music and singing while still remaining involved in the story.
left: Adina senses a change in Nemorino who is awaiting the effects of the potion he has taken. right: Nemorino, whose hand is being held by Giannetta played by April Martin, is now pursued by the ladies as a result, he thinks, due to drinking the elixir. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.
And the singers? Donizetti along with Rossini and Bellini are considered the masters of bel canto singing, beautiful singing. Dr. Glenn Winter, who provides the pre-opera talks for Virginia Opera performances, made the case in his series of articles on Elixir that this is the tenor’s opera, and the tenor has the major responsibility for the success of the show. Newcomer Carlos Enrique Santelli, winner of the 2018 Metropolitan National Opera Council Auditions, provides a reasonably convincing transformation from timid peasant into an assertive suitor, but it is his sonorous tenor voice that gives us a compelling Nemorino; you won’t be disappointed in his “Una furtiva lagrima”, the opera’s most famous aria. However, for me, it was soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopéz that truly held my attention. I expect singers in a professional production to sing well, but if they also have voices that I like, it is a special treat. Ms. Lopéz has a pretty voice laced with charm and warmth, and she sings beautifully. She also is an excellent actress with an ingratiating stage presence; her facial expressions alone convey the comedy and the drama. The chemistry between the two worked to draw me into their love story.
The principal comedic characters were Sergeant Belcore, played by baritone Corey Crider, and Dr. Dulcamara, played by bass-baritone Matthew Burns. Mr. Crider’s baritone was clear and bright, and he gave Belcore just the right swagger with hilarious over-confidence. Mr. Burns took a while for the richness of his bass-baritone to warm up and reveal itself, but it did. He gave Dulcamara the appropriate mixture of salesmanship, an edge of cynicism, and bewilderment when his potion appears to his surprise to work on Nemorino. April Martin contributed admirably in the supporting role of Adina’s friend, Giannetta. I might also add that a chorus of over twenty members playing roles as villagers almost stole the show. Donizetti employs the chorus frequently, and this group sounded terrific.
Two cast photos as examples of the set and staging. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.
And let’s wrap up with the staging. Kudos to Director Kyle Lang and his creative team – the staging worked. First, the costumes were bright and cheerful, fitting the era; they set the stage all by themselves, especially as Lang choreographs the movement and placement of each person on stage to create an effect of posing for photos. It was quite remarkable and very effective. The team also used a large golden frame adorned with grapes for vino to focus our attention, and a screen backstage showing mood creating tapestries and artwork. I’m not sure if the entrance of Dr. Dulcamara went off as desired, since the gondola cage floated by and then Dulcamara entered from the side. As a package, it all worked quite well to support the story telling.
Well, not only did nobody die, but the worst sin revealed was a bit of deception and even that worked out for the better. Virginia Opera’s The Elixir of Love gave me over two hours in another world, away from the concerns in mine, entertaining me with beautiful music and singing, and sent me home with a smile on my face and warmth in my heart. Not a bad evening.
The Fan Experience: The Elixir of Love now moves to Richmond for its final two performances on Friday, February 22, and Sunday, Feb 24. Recommended is the pre-opera talk 45 minutes before the opera by Dr. Glenn Winters, VA Opera’s Community Outreach and Musical Director. It can be standing room only; so get there early.