WASHINGTON, March 26, 2014 – If you’re a young guy, you’ll instantly recognize the situation. We’ve all been there at one time or another. You’re hopelessly in love with a girl who could care less, and nothing you can do or say will alter the situation.
You’re desperate enough that you can’t help thinking something like: wouldn’t it be better than totally awesome if you could just drink some magical potion that suddenly makes that girl of your dreams as mad for you as you are for her?
In the wonderful world of comic opera, a lovesick young country gent named Nemorino begins to think so after his would-be girlfriend Adina spurns him for the umpteenth time. Worse, since he doesn’t have a law degree from Harvard, his building frustration makes him the perfect mark for the shady “Doctor” Dulcamera, the friendly neighborhood traveling snake oil peddler.
To cure Nemorino’s heartache and turn Adino’s head around, the good Doctor offers Nemorino a secret love elixir that, upon close examination, looks suspiciously like a bottle of cheap red wine. No matter. Our desperate young swain is good to go. In no time at all, we’re right in the middle of the scheme that sets Gaetano Donizetti’s popular, tuneful comic opera “L’elisir d’amore” (“The Elixir of Love”) into motion.
“Elixir” is the Washington National Opera’s latest offering, in town for a short run that wraps up this weekend at the Kennedy Center Opera House. It’s actually the third time around for the company’s production, last seen here in 2006 after making its debut back in 1997.
Unlike some productions, however, it’s aged well and still seems fresh, new and fun on this, it’s third outing, due in no small measure to director Stephen Lawless’ light comic touch and excellent pacing, and, even more importantly, to some great singing and acting by a rotating cast of sparkling young and young-at-heart vocalists.
The music doesn’t hurt, either. Debuting back in 1832, Donizetti’s highly amusing bel canto opera is beloved by most opera fans. Better yet, it’s a great introductory vehicle for skeptical opera newbies, too. It’s quite a charmer, delightfully silly, uncomplicated, loaded with enjoyable tunes and filled with 19th century character that, if slightly unsophisticated, will likely still remind us even today of some people we know.
On opening night, tenor Stephen Costello, who did a superb turn as Greenhorn-Ishmael in the WNO and east coast premiere last month of “Moby-Dick,” was equally impressive if not moreso as Donizetti’s slightly dimwitted but endearingly honest Romantic lead. His clear, supple, simply beautiful lyric voice quite happily also possesses considerable power which served him in good stead, particularly when he was stationed far to the rear from the center of the stage.
The lucky Mr. Costello also has had the fortune in this production to be able to court not one but two Adinas. On opening night, this slightly bookish coquette was sung by sprightly soprano Ailyn Pérez—Mr. Costello’s real life wife—who was simply a delight. Similar to Mr. Costello, she unveiled a gorgeous, expressive vocal instrument that provided power without strain when she needed it most.
Ms. Pérez alternated with the always wonderful Sarah Coburn, a great favorite here in Washington. We were fortunate enough to catch one of her performances as well, and enjoyed being treated to Ms. Coburn’s effortless navigation of Donizetti’s most difficult vocal ornamentation.
In both productions we attended, the role of the blustering Sgt. Belcore—Nemorino’s unwelcome nemesis—was sung with robust humor by Italian bass-baritone Simone Alberghini, whose supple voice and extensive range also added welcome heft to many of this opera’s numerous ensembles.
Equally enjoyable, witty and fun was boisterous bass Nicola Ulivieri who seemed to be having the time of his life impersonating the crafty Doctor Dulcamera to a fare-thee-well. Of the three NSO and one Wolf Trap Opera performances of this opera we’ve seen over the years, Mr. Ulivieri seemed to have calibrated his tricky character just right for this current production.
A final hat tip to Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, Canadian soprano Shantelle Przybylo who sang the small but key role of Giannetta both evenings we attended. We’ve had a chance to hear her previously in the company’s American Opera Initiative and Stars of Tomorrow programs, and it already looks as if she’s got a most promising career stretching out before her.
Under the baton of Ward Stare in his WNO debut, the WNO Orchestra performed remarkably well, though there were some difficulties calibrating with the singers and chorus in both performances we saw.
On opening night, the chorus was barely audible in roughly a third of the first act before recalibrating at half time. And likewise, during roughly the first 45 minutes of Ms. Coburn’s first appearance as Adina, the orchestra was a bit too loud for the soloists, although communications with the chorus had greatly improved.
That said, the problems settled down fairly quickly, and audiences over the past week have been treated to one of the best productions of “Elixir” they’re likely to see, highlighted as this production has been with beautiful singing, marvelous comic acting, a still delightful rustic set and costuming, and an over-all sense of fun that will prove hard to duplicate.
Rating: *** ½ (3 ½ out of 4 stars)
WNO’s production of “L’elisir d’amore” continues through March 29 at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
Note: In addition to the role of Adina, the roles of Nemorino, Sgt. Belcore, and Dulcamera alternate on various dates, with Daniel Montenegro appearing as Nemorino, Aleksey Bogdanov appearing as Belcore, and Peixin Chen singing the role of Dulcamera on some nights.
Tickets still remain for the final performances, ranging from $55-280.
For tickets and information, visit WNO’s page at the Kennedy Center’s website.
Next up on April 6 at 7:30 p.m.: A special vocal recital with piano accompaniment in the Terrace Theater, featuring American tenor Paul Appleby and Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins prior to their WNO debuts in the upcoming production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” The opera itself, complete with funny animals, will open on May 3, running through May 18 in the Kennedy Center Opera House with tickets priced from $25-305.
For opera fans and newbies on a serious budget or with young kids, the opening performance of “Magic Flute” will be simulcast for free at Nationals Stadium as part of the company’s annual “Opera in the Outfield” program. Watch for details.