Monday, June 02, 2014

The food (and drink) of love

(L to R) René Barbera as Nemorino, Tim Mix as Belcore,
and Susannah Biller as Adina
Photo: Ken Howard
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Who: Opera Theatre of St. Louis
What: Donizetti's The Elixir of Love
When: May 31 – June 25, 2014
Where: The Loretto-Hilton Center, Webster Groves

I can sum up the Opera Theatre production of Donizetti's 1832 romantic comedy "The Elixir of Love" in one word: bravi. Or maybe that should be "bravissimi," since every aspect of this funny, endearing, and beautifully sung show deserves heaps of praise.

Based on Eugène Scribe's libretto for Daniel Auber's popular comedy "Le philtre" from 1831, Felice Romani's book for "The Elixir of Love" is the story of Nemorino, a humble peasant smitten with the wealthy and beautiful landowner Adina. She, though, is more taken with the macho Sergeant Belcore. In desperation, Nemorino buys a love potion (actually just some cheap wine) from the traveling quack Dr. Dulcamara. Complications, as they say, ensue. But all ends happily for everyone—including Dr. Dulcamara who, as the curtain descends, is still fleecing the suckers.

René Barbera
Directors tackling theatre pieces remote in time and place from their audiences face a tough choice. Do you retain the original setting and risk having it come across as a museum piece, or do you update it and risk distorting character relationships? It's a major question for opera directors, since the vast majority of the works in the mainstream repertoire are up to four centuries old.

Fortunately, Donizetti and his librettist Felice Romani intended "The Elixir of Love" to be somewhat remote from its original Milan audience from the start, setting it in Basque country late in the previous century. That gave James Robinson and his team, who created this production for Opera Colorado back in 2007, an inspiration: why not move it to small-town America in the early 20th century? In particular, why not set it in a time and place reminiscent of Meredith Willson's classic musical "The Music Man"—a work which, as Mr. Robinson points out in his program notes, "Elixir" somewhat resembles?

The decision makes good dramatic sense. The setting of (as it says in the program) "a small American town in 1914" is remote enough to seem as quaint to a modern audience as Basque country no doubt did to the original Milanese, yet familiar enough to still resonate. Nemorino is now a small businessman—he owns an ice cream truck—instead of a peasant, and Adina, while she wields a lot of influence, is less clearly a member of the landed gentry. Nevertheless, the difference in their status is still obvious enough to drive the story.

Susannah Biller
As Mr. Robinson noted in an article for Boulder's Daily Camera back in 2007, productions of "Elixir" are often driven by great singing (as befits the opera's status as a bel canto classic) but a real sense of character and human relationships is sometimes missing. The great strength of the OTSL cast is that they are not only great singers, they're also solid actors. Their characters are credible and their emotions believable. This is Opera Theatre doing what it does best: real theatre with splendid voices.

When I first saw tenor René Barbera (our Nemorino) three years ago in OTSL's "Daughter of the Regiment," I observed that his voice was clear, powerful, and pretty much seamless throughout the wide range called for in the role. It still is. His little aria of despair, "A furtive tear" ("Una furtiva lagirma") in the second act was such a thing of beauty that shouts of "bravo" followed hard upon it.

Back then, though, I wasn't much taken with his acting ability. This time around I have no such qualms. From the moment he appeared on stage, Mr. Barbera's Nemorino was an instantly appealing mix of passion and vulnerability. He means well, but he's shy and easily bullied. He's sympathetic from the get-go—which he must be if the opera is going to work.

Patrick Carfizzi
Soprano Susannah Biller's Adina is just as perfect. Like Mr. Barbera, she has the kind of powerful, flexible voice required for coloratura roles like this one. When she and Mr. Barbera are in full flight in one of the score's many duets, it's sheer opera heaven. Her acting skills are equally fine. She establishes her character as soon as she appears on stage and remains "in the moment" throughout.

Baritone Tim Mix is the swaggering Sergeant Belcore, the role he played in the 2007 Boulder production. He, too, has a big, accurate voice that easily navigates the rapid patter Donizetti often assigns to his comic villains. His gets the character's absurdly inflated self-regard just right, which makes his eventual comeuppance as satisfying as it should be.

Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi has the plum role of the wily Dr. Dulcamara, peddling his patently fake patent medicine from a vintage motorcycle. The role is written for a bass, but Mr. Carfizzi sounded entirely comfortable with the low notes and rattled off the patter songs with ease and accuracy. Dulcamara is a rogue, but essentially a likeable one, and Mr. Carfizzi's performance captured the man perfectly.

Tim Mix
The role of Adina's friend Gianetta isn't a large one, but the character's voice is prominent in the opening crowd scene. Soprano Leela Subramaniam (a Gerdine Young Artist) makes a powerful first impression in that number, with a big voice the soars effortlessly over the top of the chorus. The libretto doesn't give her much to work with in creating a character, but Ms. Subramaniam has found a charmingly coquettish woman in there nevertheless.

The orchestra of (mostly) St. Louis Symphony musicians under Stephen Lord sounded gave Donizetti's music the snap and precision it needs, with some especially impressive playing from the flutes, led by Mark Sparks. This repertoire is familiar territory for Mr. Lord, and he clearly loves it.

Stage direction by Jose Maria Condemi, based on Mr. Robinson's original, is crisp and clean, creating effective stage pictures and moving the large cast on and off the unit set (with its massive bandstand) quickly and easily. That keeps the pace brisk and the action fluid. I think his decision, in the final scene, to remind us of the impending horror of The Great War is somewhat out of keeping with the sunny tone of the opera overall. But that's a minor complaint.

Designer Allen Moyer's set design, based on his Opera Colorado original, colorfully evokes the Americana of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. And that working ice cream truck is a gem.

Leela Subramaniam and Chorus
Kelley Rourke's English translation of the libretto generally works well, but includes some turns of phrase (particularly for Belcore) that seem a bit too contemporary for the 1914 setting.

Opera Theatre's production of "The Elixir of Love" runs through June 25th in rotating repertory with three other operas. To get the full festival experience, come early and have a picnic supper on the lawn or under the refreshment tent. You can bring your own food or purchase a gourmet supper in advance from Ces and Judy's. Drinks are available on site as well, or you can bring your own. For more information:

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