Lively and sophisticated: Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Denis Vélez (Giannetta), Charles Castronovo (Nemorino) & Chorus (c) Cory Weaver

United StatesUnited States Donizetti, The Elixir of Love (L’elisir d’amore): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago / Enrique Mazzola (conductor). Civic Opera House, Chicago, 2.10.2021. (JLZ)

Director – Daniel Slater
Designer – Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting (original) – Simon Mills
Lighting (revival) – Sarah Riffle
Costumes – Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Chorus Master – Michael Black
Choreographer – Tim Claydon

Giannetta – Denis Vélez
Nemorino – Charles Castronovo
Adina – Ailyn Pérez
Belcore – Joshua Hopkins
Dulcamara – Kyle Ketelsen

This production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, with a strong, well-chosen cast and excellent music direction, presents Chicago audiences with a lively version – sung in Italian – of the enduring comic opera. The staging, which originated with the UK’s Opera North, strikes a balance between romance and humor, with comic elements never lapsing to slapstick or stage gimmicks.

The company of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s The Elixir of Love (c) Cory Weaver.

The story is set on the patio outside the Hotel Adina, and the updating of Donizetti’s 1832 work to the mid-twentieth century works nicely. Both clever and practical, the set serves for all the scenes, and clever blocking places the singers at various places. Daniel Slater adds some fanciful elements too – such as the balloon that takes Doctor Dulcamara to the hotel – which bring a bit a whimsy to the production. For the military troop that Belcore leads, the use of motorcycles allows the soldiers to move easily between scenes. Other features fit well into the concept behind the production, such as Dulcamara’s silent but able assistant supporting the huckstering of the doctor’s snake oil with an always-ready tray of the elixir.

At the core of the production is Kyle Ketelsen as Dulcamara. Familiar to Lyric audiences for several roles in past seasons, the bass-baritone makes this role his own. In addition to his warm tone and precise articulations, Ketelsen’s acting brought a welcome depth to the part. His sense of stage movement emerged in several ways, like the two-step pattern that reinforced the cadence of ‘Udite, udite, o rustici’. Ketelsen’s aria did not just sell the elixir – it sold the house on his interpretation. He developed his character throughout the opera so that his nuanced performance in the second act duet with Adina, the barcarolle ‘Io son ricco e tu sei bella’, was sufficiently ironic in delivery to poke fun at the pending wedding with Belcore. And Ketelsen’s thoughtful phrasing gave the appropriate dramatic tension to the duet with Adina, ‘Quanto amore’, to set up the ensuing reconciliation with Nemorino.

As to Belcore, Joshua Hopkins’s approach transformed the stock-in-trade qualities of the character into something more substantial. His opening aria, ‘Come Paride vezzoso’, stood out for its solid delivery and well-considered phrasing. Hopkins’s Belcore is aware of his romantic shallowness, and it lets him make the most of his posturing. Throughout the evening, Hopkins delivered his lines with consummate diction and timing. His performance was persuasive, especially the duet ‘Venti scudi’, an attempt to convince Charles Castronovo’s Nemorino to stop pursuing Adina and join the army. The interaction with Nemorino gave a fine dramatic point to the scene in which Belcore reduces his rival to his minion.

Even then, Nemorino never lost his devotion to Adina. Castronovo’s tenor soared from the start, with his ‘Quanto è bella, quanto è cara’ showing the even tone and sustained lines that would emerge later in an exquisite performance of the iconic ‘Una furtiva lagrima’. It was a masterful performance in which Castronovo revealed his character through an exemplary blending of text and music: tone, line and rhythmic nuance came together to command the house as it defined Nemorino’s heart and will.

The intense emotional pitch expressed in Nemorino’s famous romanza culminated in the scene with Adina when he learns that she has purchased his contract with the military, and he now has his freedom. Ailyn Pérez gave a sympathetic reading of ‘Prendi, per me sei libero’, which reveals her character’s feelings about Nemorino. As familiar as this number is, the performance’s details contributed to the evening. Pérez soared here as she let her character’s emotions infuse the delivery. The coy Adina, who was intrigued by the legendary tale of Tristan and Isolde in Act I’s ‘Della crudele Isotta’, became more extroverted in the later number in which she expresses her love for Nemorino with full voice.

All the elements came together convincingly. The chorus was remarkably deft, with excellent texture, tone and diction. Enrique Mazzola led the score with the energy it deserves. His sometimes-brisk tempos gave the performance a wonderful sense of excitement, and Donizetti’s score emerged clearly, with the winds and brass always fitting well in the balanced timbres that are characteristic of Lyric Opera. This was evident both in the full ensemble numbers that had the richness they needed, and in the chamber-music-like sonorities that supported ‘Una furtiva lagrima’. With fine direction, effective staging and outstanding singing, this is truly an Elixir of Love that holds its vintage.

James L. Zychowicz

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