Restoring Much of the Sparkle to Donizetti’s Elixir

United StatesUnited States Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore: Soloists, Opera Philadelphia, Corrado Rovaris (conductor), Academy of Music, Philadelphia, 4.5.2016. (BJ)

Director: Stephen Lawless
Set and Costume Design: Ashley Martin-Davis
Lighting Design: Pat Collins
Chorus Master: Elizabeth Braden
Wig and Make-up Design: David Zimmerman
Stage Manager: Becki Smith

Adina: Sarah Shafer
Nemorino: Dimitri Pittas
Sergeant Belcolore: Craig Verm
Doctor Dulcamara: Kevin Burdette
Giannetta: Katrina Thurman

As charming and touching as it is, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is a work that has brought me decidedly mixed experiences in the opera house. The worst performance I ever saw (or rather, half-performance, since by intermission I could take no more of it and walked out) featured the unpleasant sight of Luciano Pavarotti deliberately guying the work itself. A couple of student productions since then, by the Curtis Opera Theatre a decade or so ago and by the Academy of Vocal Arts a few years before that, were good enough to take away any lingering bad taste left by Pavarotti, and so I looked forward enthusiastically to Opera Philadelphia’s production, originated by the Santa Fe Opera.

It proved, a few reservations aside, to be highly enjoyable. In a beguiling portrayal of the initially flighty but in the end warmly loving and lovable Adina, Sarah Shafer sang beautifully enough to justify the reputation this young American soprano has built up in recent years. At times I felt that the voice lacked something of the sheer heft needed to cut through the prevailing vocal and orchestral texture, but at her best she floated an elegant line and unleashed many attractive phrases and some sufficiently spectacular high notes. Dimitri Pittas had taken the role of Nemorino over at short notice from a tenor who was forced by illness to withdraw, but there was nothing remotely tentative about his performance; his voice is both rich in timbre and produced with admirable clarity, and there is a relaxed quality about his singing that is all the more welcome for being fairly rare among young tenors.

The lower male voices in the cast belonged to Craig Verm and Kevin Burdette, both of them alive to the comic possibilities of their roles and mostly up to the tongue-twisting challenge of their patter songs, and Katrina Thurman’s Giannetta provided a sympathetic foil to Shafer’s Adina.

Most of my niggles relate, as is often the case, to the dramatic aspects of the production. Corrado Rovaris, the company’s music director, is an estimable conductor whose work I have enjoyed in repertoire ranging from Rossini to Higdon, but I found the first two words of his statement, in an interview printed in the program, that “Of course our director, Stephen Lawless[,] has updated the time of the opera so that our production takes place in the 1940s,” needlessly provocative. Why “Of course,” pray? What is the sense in locating the action in a clearly Stateside environment where all the villagers wave American flags but the unit of currency is the lira? Why, for that matter, against that background of Americana, does Adina suddenly show up waving an Italian tricolore? And in that environment, why, when Nemorino runs off to the inn to see Dr. Dulcamara, does he run off in precisely the opposite direction to the direction Dulcamara had taken to get there?

You may ask in return why I am requiring dramatic consistency in a frothy comic masterpiece like L’elisir d’amore (of the kind that Rovaris incidentally, in the same interview, says it isn’t). But it seems that such gratuitous contradictions of sense illustrate the way so many directors’ propensity for self-assertion trumps (if that is still an acceptable word in civilized circles) any capacity they may possess for thinking.

But all right, let me lighten up a bit. Some of Lawless’s comic inventions provided good harmless fun. In a 1940s context, Nemorino’s characterization as an auto mechanic was a perfectly reasonable substitution for the simple peasant of a century earlier, and provided some entertaining amusement with his car, and Pittas filled the role with an excellent blend of humor and frustrated emotion. It was an interesting idea to present Dulcamara as a quack whose show of outward confidence was frequently punctured by touches that revealed his inner insecurity. There was amusement also with some clever use of a blackboard, including Adina’s lesson to the schoolchildren on the Italian alphabet, and someone else’s hesitant writing of the menu for a wedding feast of several courses, all of which included chicken, down to a dessert of “gelato con pollo.” For the most part, aside from the familiar nonsense of people standing on tables, the interplay of the characters on stage was clearly and effectively handled (though, again, I did wonder why the chorus’s American soldiers spent perhaps ten minutes at one point standing motionless with their rifles leveled at a crowd of inoffensive peasants).

Under Pat Collins’s skillful lighting, Ashley Martin-Davis’s simple but serviceable sets provided some entertainment on their own account, and her costumes were equally well conceived. The orchestral sound was perhaps a shade less polished than it usually is under Rovaris’s baton, but he paced the score effectively, and the accompaniment to Pittas’s searching account of “Una furtiva lagrima” was suitably ravishing, and Elizabeth Braden’s disciplined chorus, like everyone on stage and in the pit, was clearly having a lot of fun. And so, consequently, was I.

Bernard Jacobson

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