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Sweet Elixir: Sticky Maybe, but So Tasty!

Photo by Karin CooperWith Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri the Washington National Opera offers two operas this season that could be characterized as light, ‘happy peasant’ operas. Not necessarily my cup of tea, despite generally delightful (and fairly similar) music, because the suspension of disbelief has to work overtime while trying to appreciate what only too easily degenerates into awkward camp. But isn't it gratifying to see the working and servant class so happily laboring away, bringing in the harvest (as in the opening scene of L’Elisir)? It gives a certain reassuring feeling when congregating under the chandeliers at intermission, discussing the lead's tessitura over a glass of champagne.

When a comedy such as either of these two operas is done well, however, it can genuinely delight. And what a happy surprise this production of the ‘Elixir of Love’ is: an opera to please all but the most obstinately elitist opera lovers. Getting there is admittedly an obstacle course. The music, light but pleasing, is a fun, albeit predictable, romp. The plot is either silly nonsense or absent. The characters unbelievable, irrational, or near imbeciles who can say the dumbest things in song or lack any motivation for their actions. The action haphazard and contorted. Any giant or rainbow-summoning god or fish-woman in Wagner is endowed with more recognizable human emotions. But it works if it is well acted and well directed, and it delights if it is well sung on top. And on Saturday in the Kennedy Center it all came together.

Photo by Karin CooperThanks to an outstanding cast and a staging (credit goes to director Stephen Lawless - even if he did not approve of some last-minute changes that were made to this production, shared with the LA Music Center Opera and the Grand Théâtre de Genève) that not only looked good but gave the chorus and protagonists something to do while frolicking around stage (no one ever looked lost or out of place), Donizetti’s opera made for two very entertaining hours. Paul Groves was utterly convincing as the idiot Nemorino. Without going overboard, he employed his impeccable sense for comedy (physical but not crude) to great effect. His singing was unmannered and never called attention to any specific aspect of it. Save for a bit of a wide vibrato here and there (especially on top), he sang with stunning consistency. No particular arias were highlights; the even, untiring quality of his entire night’s worth of singing was one long highlight. He was blessed with a vocally magnificent Elizabeth Futral, a 1995 Operalia winner, who sang with great charm and amazing agility. With her voice better suited for this repertoire than the recent Bach, she gave life and plenty spark to the fickle character of Adina.

Other Reviews:

Charles T. Downey, DCist Goes to the Opera (DCist, April 3)

Tim Page, 'Elisir': One Love Potion, Stirred Silly (Washington Post, April 3)

T. L. Ponick, Opera scores with 'd'Amore' (Washington Times, April 3)

Tim Smith, 'L'elisir' performance is satisfying, spirited (Baltimore Sun, April 4)
Marc Barrard making his company debut as Sergeant Belcore also displayed a great sense for comedy. Unsubtle enough for the purpose and venue of an opera house but genuinely funny without being too much more a ham than his character already is. He and his colleagues didn’t take their characters too seriously but seemed to enjoy themselves on stage. To add a comic relief character – “Dottore” Dulcamara – to a cast of all comedic characters could well be overkill, but Steven Condy and his trumpet-playing midget sidekick joined the grand silliness smoothly. And if Condy started with a distinctly chalky voice, he later warmed up to a remarkable performance. Christina Martos was a very welcome addition as the feisty Giannetta, getting better and better as the show went on. The bit of melodrama of the last act is gladly overlooked after so much easy-going amusement. It’s an opera for the people, perfect to take the genre a peg down from its sometimes deliberately exclusive pedestal of elitism.

The masses are welcome at repeat performances on April 4th, 6th, 9th (matinee), 12th, 15th, and 17th. On April 11th, a "Generation O" performance by the singers of the WNO Young Artists Program takes place. Sergeant Belcore will be sung by Carlos Archuleta on the 17th, Valeriano Lanchas (the Sagristano from last season's Tosca) will put his abundent talent to use as Dr. Dulcamara on April 15th and 17th.