Donizetti: L’Elisir d’Amore. Virginia Opera production conducted by Joseph Walsh. Director: Dorothy Danner. Scenic Designer: Eduardo Sicangco. Lighting Designer: Ruth Hutson. Presented at George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax, Virginia, December 5, 2008.
Virginia Opera really stages its productions. This is not a company that focuses so intensely on singing that it forgets the other elements of effective opera: scenic design, choreography, and plenty of hustle and bustle. There is always a lot happening onstage in Virginia Opera productions – which makes an opera’s quiet, heartfelt scenes stand out all the more clearly. This approach is particularly effective in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore.
Start with the scenery: the opera is staged within an enormous picture frame. Projections at the rear of the stage change from time to time, but the gigantic gold frame – equipped at one side with a vine that performers can and do occasionally climb – remains throughout. This storybook arrangement, reminiscent of many classic Disney movies that began with a book being opened before the animated characters started to move, captures the fairy-tale nature of librettist Felice Romani’s story nicely. So do the costumes, which are stylized rustic and stylized military: they identify characters clearly without intruding overmuch into the audience’s perception. Clever lighting – notably including an excellent tableau near the end of the first act, in which everyone on stage freezes while spotlights make the two principal characters stand out – adds to the effectiveness of the staging. So does the fact that there is so much going on: two soldiers’ rifle-twirling acts, some competitive hat tossing, and plenty of byplay among the principals that adds to their characterizations rather than distracting from them.
None of this comes at the expense of the music, but this is a production that succeeds on classic operatic terms, by being a stage play as well as a showcase for bel canto singing and some of Donizetti’s liveliest and loveliest tunes. The four principal singers play well off each other in addition to presenting most of their music with style and joy. Jane Redding is a wonderful Adina, flirtatious and flighty and clearly a stylized character at the outset, gradually revealing herself capable of love in the second act: her “Prendi, per me sei libero” clearly shows her trying to become worthy of Nemorino’s unselfish adoration. Redding’s voice is not quite equal to two full acts of Donizetti’s vocal acrobatics, becoming slightly shrill at the top near the end of the opera. For the most part, though, she is bright, lively and thoroughly charming, mixing warmth (even heat) in some lines with playful insouciance in others.
Joshua Kohl looks like a complete bumpkin as Nemorino, and unfortunately sometimes sounds like one, too, with some breathiness in his delivery and some less-than-elegant first-act vocal decorations. He warms up by the second act, though, delivering "Una furtiva lagrima” with such genuine feeling that the famous aria seems to belong in an altogether more serious opera (Romani actually worried that it would not fit the mood of L’Elisir d’Amore, but Donizetti insisted on including it – thereby permanently broadening the definition of a comic opera).
Adina and Nemorino outgrow the comic conventions from which their characters derive, but the other two principals, Sergeant Belcore and Dr. Dulcamara, remain firmly within the opera buffa tradition – and Stephen Hartley and Todd Robinson, respectively, play them just that way. Hartley is entirely surface-level in appearance, mannerisms and straightforward vocal style, strutting and preening at every opportunity. The “recruiting” duet, in which he tells Nemorino about all the women available to a soldier (while anachronistically showing him a wallet-style foldout of pictures), is especially effective, because Belcore’s popinjay pronouncements contrast so well with Nemorino’s heartsickness. And Hartley gets Belcore’s eventual acceptance of the Adina-Nemorino relationship just right, giving Adina a “who needs you?” look as he reminds himself of all the other available women.
As the quack doctor, Robinson is constantly busy, not only with his patter songs (wherein he sometimes slurs the words, although it scarcely matters) but also with his constant interactions with two supernumerary assistants, a young boy and elderly man who carry Dulcamara’s potions, collect his money, help land and secure the balloon in which he arrives, and provide needed props – notably the labels that Robinson slaps on bottles of cheap Bordeaux so he can peddle them as the love potion of the opera’s title. Robinson is big, bluff and overbearing – a fine characterization.
In the small but important role of Gianetta, Allison Pohl is bright, bubbly and silly, with a lovely light soprano voice that fits the character well.
Conductor Joseph Walsh keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, which is a good idea: speed covers the many plot holes. Walsh occasionally swamps the singers with some overenthusiastic orchestral fortissimos, but for the most part supports them admirably.
There are a few flaws in the presentation, such as the use of a piano rather than a harpsichord and the selection for one rear projection of a huge, rather weird picture of a woman carrying produce, with only the lower part of her face and her basket visible. By and large, though, Virginia Opera’s new L’Elisir d’Amore (its first staging of this opera in a decade) gives the audience what it ought to have in this opera – a combination of attractive staging, lovely music, fine singing and comic byplay that can be summarized in a single word: fun.