BWW Reviews: OTSL's ELIXIR OF LOVE is intoxicating!

BWW Reviews:  OTSL's ELIXIR OF LOVE is intoxicating!

Well, it worked on me! The Elixir of Love opened last night at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and after only a sip or two I fell head over heels for it. At the end of the evening I was, like Nemorino, giddy (oh, let's admit it, the better word is "drunk") with happiness and delight. It was simply perfection!

I think Gaetano Donizetti's bel canto confection of comic romance would be the perfect thing for one's first experience with opera: sweet and funny, light-hearted, even silly, but with touching moments of sentiment. It's musically gorgeous but accessible. And, like all OTSL productions, The Elixir of Love is sung in English.

In 1832 Donizetti wrote this piece in less than a month under contract to a theatre in Milan. (They were in a panic because the previously contracted composer had failed to deliver.) It was a resounding success, and has remained in the repertoire ever since. (The latest statistics show it to be the thirteenth most frequently produced opera in the world.)

The story was originally set in an Italian village, but this recent adaptation places it in a small Mid-western American town in 1914. We step into the theatre and we see a charming white Victorian band-stand and a bucolic background mural straight out of Grant Wood. This could be The Music Man.

In Donizetti's original it was class and wealth differences which prevented Adina from seeing simple, sweet Nemorino as a romantic candidate; in this adaptation she is the town librarian, and she views Nemorino as not meeting her educational standards. He's awash in love for her, but she gives him such a cold shoulder! He is, after all, merely the town's Good Humor man--selling ice-cream from his truck.

All of these changes to the story are slight and gentle, and they work very well indeed.

Sergeant Belcore, a recruiting officer, arrives in town. He's vain and braggadocious, and he doesn't see why Adina shouldn't fall in love with him at once--just as every girl always does.

The arrival of the showy charlatan, Dr. Dulcamara, rouses all these rustic citizens into buying his magical elixir--good for what ails you. And for poor Nemorino he has a special potion: an Elixir of Love, that, when Nemorino drinks it, will make all women mad for him.

Three years ago tenor Rene Barbera thrilled St. Louis audiences in Opera Theatre's production of Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment. Since then he has garnered significant laurels: in Placido Domingo's Operalia competition in Moscow he was the first artist in history to sweep all three first-place prizes. His competition piece? "Ah, mes amis" from Daughter of the Regiment--the aria with all those high C's. And now Rene Barbera has returned in triumph to St. louis, where last night he triumphed again as Nemorino. Barbera's voice is simply perfect for this role--strong and true, fluid and agile, it soars gloriously, yet it can be wonderfully expressive in even the softest passages. Those pure high notes seem to come so very easily. And such dynamics: his gentle crescendo from pianissimo to double-forte is done with a creamy, immaculate smoothness. At one point, when Nemorino is a little tipsy from doses of his eighty-proof elixir, he gives the most charming little hiccup--and it seems to be precisely on pitch. As an actor Barbera conveys the innocence and charm of this simple, good man.

Mr. Barbera meets a beautiful match in Susannah Biller, who sings Adina. She, too, is so very right for her role. Vocally lithe, she gracefully masters all those bel canto cadenzas. And when their two voices blend together it is utter musical bliss.

Tim Mix brings a rich and powerful baritone to the role of Belcore, the recruiting sergeant, and he is a gifted comic. His Belcore is the sort of show-off muscle-man who, were they on the beach, would kick sand in poor Nemorino's face. With a splendid auburn beard and sideburns (which are, of course, a little anachronistic) he looks very like George Bernard Shaw performing as some miles gloriosus, the "braggart warrior."

Dr. Dulcamara, the charlatan snake-oil salesman, is a show-stopping role, and bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi does glorious work in it; he's wonderfully over-the- top. The doctor arrives on an antique motorcycle--complete with sidecar. In his flamboyant striped purple frock coat, tangerine vest and gray spats he is surely part Wizard of Oz; his chaotic mad-scientist gray hair is very like that of Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future. And can he sing! He can patter-sing with the best; in separate duets we relish Barbera's lyrical tenor or Miss Biller's merrily tripping soprano above the basis of Carfizzi's rapid-fire patter.

Last but not least in the cast is the strikingly beautiful Leela Subramaniam, who brings her lovely soprano voice to the role of Giannetta. She made me wish that that role were much larger.

The chorus work is excellent, the stage overflows with rich music and energy.

Costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are beautifully period. Miss Biller's floating azure dress is especially graceful, and the antique football team which Sgt. Belcore recruits en masse is a delight.

The set, by Allen Moyer, gives the ideal atmosphere for this nostalgic comedy. Nemorino's ice-cream truck and Dr. Dulcamara's motorcycle evoke those wonderful old tin toys of that era. But these vehicles pose problems. The truck, though charming, is exceedingly slow to enter--once causing a considerable pause in things. And on this thrust stage the entrance of the motorcycle necessitates opening a great panel in that lovely mural of farmland, and then the cycle has to squeeze very slowly and carefully between the bandstand and the edge of the stage. (I just knew it was going to tip into the audience!) There is a rule that is often ignored in theatres with such a wealth of technical resources: "Just because you can do some scenic effect doesn't mean that you should." And if you can't do it quite perfectly then you probably shouldn't do it.

But these tiny flaws are really like beauty-marks on this ravishing production: they merely amplify the perfection of everything else.

Director Jose Maria Condemi and conductor Stephen Lord and the whole production team should be very proud of this excellentshow. We, the audience, love you for it!

The Elixir of Love continues at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis through June 25.

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by Steve Callahan - August 10, 2017

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Steve Callahan A native Kansan I have a BA (Math and Theatre) and MA (Theatre). I was working on a PhD in Theatre when IBM sniffed my math background and lured me away with money enough to feed my (then two) children. Nevertheless I've been active in theatre all my life--having directed fifty-three productions (everything from opera in Poughkeepsie to Mrozek in Woodstock to musical melodrama in Germany) and I've acted in seventy others. Now that I'm retired I don't have that eight-to-five distraction and can focus a bit more. I've regularly reviewed theatre in St. Louis for KDHX since 1991 and am tickled now to also join BWW.