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Ionarts at Santa Fe: 'Elisir d'Amore'

Dimitri Pittas (Nemorino) and Chorus in Elisir d'Amore, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)
In my summer opera roundup, Santa Fe Opera's production of Donizetti's Elisir d'Amore was previewed as fluff and labeled, to the outrage of some and the delight of others, "one of the dumbest operas ever created." To Santa Fe Opera's credit, the company has mounted this fizzy, sentimental, and yes, insipid work only once before, back in 1968. For a new production, Santa Fe gave the nod to director Stephen Lawless, who created a rather traditional staging for Washington National Opera, premiered in 1997 and revived, without the director's approval, in 2006. The only thing, other than truly stellar singing, that can make this opera interesting is to update the time setting, which Lawless did, to Italy in 1945. Sergeant Belcore and his regiment become American GIs, who show up in an unnamed Italian town -- not the Basque village indicated in the libretto by Felice Romani -- in their sputtering Jeep. In a nice touch, the villagers first waved Italian flags, not sure which side is coming, only to replace them with American flags when they saw who it was.

The Nemorino of American tenor Dimitri Pittas ultimately makes this production work, as the hapless grease monkey with a dopey smile and a heart of gold. He has sung the role at Welsh National Opera and at the Met, and the voice is placed well, making the high notes shine in Una furtiva lagrima, sung under dim lights with the instrumental introduction accompanying Nemorino sadly covering over the beloved red sports car he has been restoring. With the characters in 1945, it was harder to make Adina seem truly of a different class than Nemorino, which is ostensibly why she disdains him, especially when she was costumed essentially like all the other women in the village. At one point, she sneers at him over her espresso demi-tasse, a sure sign that she is a latte-drinking elitist -- although not in Italy, where everyone drinks espresso. Jennifer Black, a lovely Micaëla in Santa Fe's 2006 Carmen and one of their Mimis in the 2007 La Bohème, was not quite the perfect voice for the part, a little too dark in tone to get the right sparkle and brightness for the flashy Adina.

Thomas Hammons (Dr. Dulcamara) in Elisir d'Amore, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)
The center rear of the stage throughout this staging is dominated by a bill board, carrying ads for olive oil, Dr. Dulcamara's miraculous elixir, the wedding announcement of Belcore and Adina, and so on. At first, it made me think that the director had hit on the ingenious idea of somehow equating the charlatan Dulcamara with the excesses of modern advertising, but it was not to be, as Dulcamara appeared instead as a two-bit mobster, hawking dubious wares out of his suitcase. John Del Carlo, who was to make his Santa Fe Opera debut in the role of Dulcamara, asked to be released from his contract in June because of a bad sinus infection. He was replaced by Thomas Hammons, a former Santa Fe apprentice who has had experience with the role but who convinced with his acting more than his singing. The many patter sections were often off-kilter with the orchestra, making the highly skilled conductor, Corrado Rovaris, scramble far too often to realign the orchestra. Lawless hit on a cute solution to the "servitore" who is supposed to accompany Dulcamara, playing the trumpet, by having the doctor put a scratchy record on a phonograph instead.

Other Articles:

George Loomis, Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico (Financial Times, August 10)

Scott Cantrell, Santa Fe Opera's 'Elixir of Love' is a frothy good time (Dallas Morning News, August 9)

T. D. Mobley-Martinez, Opera 'Elixir' proves fine comic tonic (Colorado Springs Gazette, July 30)

John Stege, Bel Canto, Pronto (Santa Fe Reporter, July 15)

Craig Smith, 'Elixir' a merry brew of love and laughter (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 5)
Baritone Patrick Carfizzi, another former Santa Fe apprentice, hammed it up as the cigar-smoking, sunglass-wearing Sergeant Belcore, with that unmistakable American swagger, more Catch-22 than The Greatest Generation. Vocally, he was equally on the money, with exemplary definition to the voice in melismatic passages and enough blustery rodomontade in the tone for the entire regiment. Lawless's staging went over the top in many ways, with a fairly simple set (two opposing barn-like doors on either side of that spectacular billboard -- sets and costumes by Ashley Martin-Davis) but almost too many unrelated jokes, like the wedding menu (everything chicken, including the gelato for dessert) and the priest arriving at the wedding on a green Vespa and unidentifiable in a leather jacket. In any case, it was an oh-so-charming evening of fluff and fun.

If you can stand it, this production of Elisir d'Amore will be repeated at Santa Fe Opera four more times through August 28.

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