BWW Reviews: WNO's THE ELIXIR OF LOVE Enchants With Expert Cast and Visually Stunning Production
This review is not for opera experts. I am not one by any means, nor could I say whether a tenor's interpretation resembles Domingo's or if a soprano accidentally sang an E instead of a C. Instead, this review is written by a lover of classical music and Broadway who believes that others who enjoy musical theater may also enjoy an opera that is tuneful, light, comic, performed by talented singers who can also act, and is cleverly staged and beautifully costumed.
The Washington National Opera's (WNO's) Kennedy Center Opera House revival of Stephen Lawless's production of THE ELIXIR OF LOVE (L'ELISIR D'AMORE), by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), sung in Italian with English projections, is all of those things. Director Lawless's production first appeared in Washington in 1998 and was revived in 2006. A talented cast, consisting of both WNO veterans and newcomers, sings the lead roles. All have dulcet voices that blend well together in the duets, trios, and quartets, while still exuding power during the solos - a key requirement because, unlike on Broadway, the singers are not amplified. Conductor Ward Stare expertly interprets the instrumental music, which sounds similar to that of Rossini.
The story (libretto by Felice Romani) features a love triangle and wacky plot elements. Nemorino (Tenors Stephen Costello, whom I saw, and Daniel Montenegro at six performances and two, respectively) is a penniless and dimwitted, but loyal, loveable, and charming farmworker. Adina (Sopranos Ailyn Perez and Sarah Coburn, each at four performances, both of whom I had the pleasure of seeing) is wealthy, intelligent, educated, and fickle. Nemorino is madly in love with Adina, who is tired of his constantly following her around, sighing - she does not want to settle down with anyone, preferring to transfer her affections frequently. Dashing Army Sergeant Belcore (Bass-baritones Simone Alberghini at six performances, including those I attended, and Aleksey Bogdanov at two), woos Adina and appears to be winning, to Nemorino's despair, despite the Sergeant's pomposity. When con artist "Doctor" Dulcamara (bass Nicola Ulivieri at six performances, whom I saw both times, and bass-baritone Peixin Chen at two) comes to town peddling health tonics, Nemorino asks him for a love potion that will make him irresistible to Adina. Dulcamara sells him a bottle of wine and tells him that, by the next day, Adina will be madly in love with Nemorino. Nemorino decides to ignore her in the interim. Adina, annoyed that she seems to be losing her hold on Nemorino, agrees to marry Belcore that night, although she delays the wedding when Nemorino does not appear - how can she torture him by marrying someone else, she asks, if he does not show up? Meanwhile, Nemorino, who has no more cash to buy another bottle of elixir, thinks of a desperate - and entirely legal - way to raise money quickly. As is the rule in comic opera, all, of course, is ultimately sorted out and everything ends happily.
The two sopranos approach the role of Adina differently from a dramatic standpoint - Ms. Perez, who is married to Mr. Costello, portrays the character with more bite, in my opinion, than Ms. Coburn, whose Adina seems from the beginning as if she wants to be caught, while Ms. Perez's Adina at first wants to remain free. The two sopranos also have different voice timbres. Yet, both perform expertly in a demanding role. Mr. Costello mesmerized the audience during the opera's most famous aria, "Una Furtiva Lagrima" - the crowd was completely silent, drinking in his performance. Yet, he also garnered numerous laughs during the comic portions of the story, as did Messrs. Alberghini and Ulivieri. Soprano Shantelle Przybylo, in her second season of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, sings the role of Giannetta, Adina's servant, with grace and skill.
Johan Engels' costumes are beautiful and richly detailed, in the style of the 1860s to 1870s. His elaborate set evokes the feel of an agricultural village in Italy and includes a machine that actually loads bales of hay. His muted colors, assisted by Joan Sullivan-Genthe's lighting design, seem neither drab nor depressing, but instead evoke sunlight and golden grapes.
Even the Playbill articles are praiseworthy. WNO dramaturg Kelley Rourke explains bel canto singing and its comparison to the "heavier, more declamatory" style that became popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. Another article describes the fascinating workings of the WNO's costume shop.
I heartily recommend this production, both for opera lovers and for those just getting their feet wet.
THE ELIXIR OF LOVE will appear through Saturday, March 29th. Tickets are available at the Kennedy Center box office, by calling 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324, or by online purchase through www.kennedy-center.org . The Kennedy Center provides numerous reduced-price and low-cost options.
Photo Credit: Scott Suchman