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'Elisir': Now How Much Would You Pay?

(L to R) Stephen Costello (Nemorino), Ailyn Pérez (Adina), and Simone Alberghini (Belcore)
in L'Elisir d'Amore, Washington National Opera, 2014 (photo by Scott Suchman)

As it looked on paper, the revival of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore was the low point of the Washington National Opera season. As it happened, that honor went to the fall's disastrous production of La forza del destino, but this rather dull and poorly conducted Elixir of Love ran a close second. There were bigger fish to fry in the run's opening week, but here are some thoughts on both casts, heard on Tuesday and Wednesday night. The opera, although skilfully made, is not an audience favorite, the cast list had no real star wattage, and the production was a revival of a rather staid staging directed by Stephen Lawless, last seen only in 2006 -- factors that all combined to leave the house somewhat less than full on both nights.

Soprano Ailyn Pérez showed the same charming stage presence and breadth of tone that she had as an apprentice singer at Wolf Trap in 2006, in their productions of Marriage of Figaro and Roméo et Juliette. Intonation issues were still present throughout the evening, but there has been improvement, with a little strain on some high notes and melismatic passages that were not always clean. If it was not vocally first-class, it was a beautifully acted Adina, not as vixenish as Elizabeth Futral last time around but with spunk. Her real-life husband, Stephen Costello, is much better suited to a comic role like Nemorino than he was to the earnest Greenhorn in Moby-Dick last month, and he was hilarious with his dancing, mugging, and other antics. As funny as he was, the role lives or dies on the tenor's beloved aria Una furtiva lagrima, which requires a melting legato and the most beautiful tone quality. Costello had comic timing and plenty of power in other places, but here he fell short.

In the second cast, Sarah Coburn, who had the more immaculate turn as the lead in 2011's Lucia di Lammermoor, was the technically superior Adina, in terms of intonation, accuracy, and high notes, but a size smaller in vocal heft. Coburn also made Adina even less of a minx, emphasizing the character's sensitivity over her cruelty, which made her performance stand out even further. Her Nemorino on Tuesday, American tenor Daniel Montenegro, made a competent but undistinguished company debut, the tone too swallowed and faint to shine, leading to him being covered in most ensembles, and the acting a little stiff. Of the two renditions of Una furtiva lagrima, however, Montenegro's was the more beautiful, just sung elegantly and without affectation.

The best part of the first cast actually was the contribution of two Italian singers, who brought a lived-in awareness of the opera buffa tradition to their roles. As the blustery Sergeant Belcore, bass-baritone Simone Alberghini exceeded expectations from his Figaro in The Barber of Seville in 2009, giving the character an absurd swagger both in voice and movement. Bass Nicola Ulivieri stole the show in his company debut, with a note-perfect Dulcamara, peddling his snake oil with brilliant patter and ringing high notes. Hopefully, we will hear him again very soon, perhaps in Mozart, in which he has received critical acclaim. Neither of these roles reached this standard in the second cast, although Aleksey Bogdanov came close with his Belcore, a bit dry in tone but suitably pompous. Chinese bass-baritone Peixin Chin made a rocky company debut as Dulcamara, the high notes not quite there and a tendency to sing far ahead of the beat making the patter numbers quite a mess. Canadian soprano Shantelle Przybylo, in her second year as a WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, made a pretty and vocally solid Giannetta.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Perez, Costello are game in WNO’s ‘L’elisir d’amore’ (Washington Post, March 24)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera serves up an effective 'Elixir' (Baltimore Sun, March 24)

Gary Tischler, 'Elixir of Love': You'll Want to Drink This Operatic Potion (The Georgetowner, March 24)
It might seem that such a light opera would be easy to put together, but the opposite is true. You still need excellent singers, and even more importantly, a sure hand at the podium. This was not what WNO had in the company debut of Ward Stare, judging by the number of misalignments that occurred between pit and stage, including with the chorus, otherwise excellent as usual. True, these problems were in greater number with the less accomplished second cast, but when such problems cropped up on Wednesday even with the excellent Italian singers and rather late in the run, the origin of the problem was pretty clear. The orchestra made beautiful sounds individually, especially in the wind section, featured so beautifully in the overture, and with the onstage banda, which appeared in costume at the wedding scene.

Like his updated staging of this opera for Santa Fe Opera, seen in 2009, director Stephen Lawless moves the action of the opera to a rural village somewhere in Italy, seemingly around the time of the opera's premiere, in Milan in 1832. The scene unfolds in a large rural building, part granary, part work hall, with beautiful 19th-century costumes (set and costume design by Johan Engels), under warm Mediterranean lighting of various times of day (designed by Joan Sullivan-Genthe). Unlike the 2006 revival, which was done without Lawless's approval, Lawless oversaw all aspects of this production, working with both casts, and the acting direction is all well done. Lawless has kept his casting of Dulcamara's assistant as a little person (uncredited) -- the libretto specifies only that he is a "servitore" and that he plays the trumpet (doubled offstage by an actual musician) -- which is whimsical, although it is hard to see the reasoning behind the decision.

The opera has a particular resonance this time around, because it is in the same season with the extraordinary staging of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde last fall. The eponymous potion is created, of course, because Adina was reading the legend of Tristan and Isolde -- Donizetti's opera predates Wagner's operatic adaptation of the story by a couple decades -- and Nemorino decides that he needs a love elixir to be able to triumph over Adina's resistance to his love. (Not that this was much acknowledged in the program notes, where there were quotes from Cyndi Lauper and The Clovers instead.) Here, as in 2006, the recitative accompanist (Michael Baitzer), playing on a black upright piano rather than a historical instrument, added two references to the famous chromatic love theme from Wagner's opera, doubly significant with the memory of the earlier production in one's mind.

This production has two more performances (March 28 and 29, both featuring the first cast. The only difference between the two is the Adina: Sarah Coburn will sing the role on Friday, and Ailyn Pérez will sing it on Saturday. If you like a light comic opera and can score a discounted ticket, you will likely not be disappointed by either one.

1 comment:

Robert Valente said...

My instinct not to renew my NSO subscription seems to have been correct. At least the NSO has had some nice operatic voices on their stage.