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Funny and beautifully sung, but where’s Donizetti?
Opera Philadelphia’s ‘The Elixir of Love’ (‘L’Elisir d’Amore’)
Director Stephen Lawless created this production for Santa Fe Opera in 2009, and it certainly is a crowd-pleaser, with amusing action constantly taking place. But the shtick often distracts from its romantic story and from the art of bel canto (literally, “beautiful song”).
That’s a shame, because the cast is musically assured. Sarah Shafer sings mellifluously as the leading lady, and Dimitri Pittas is appealing as the man who falls in love with her, while the baritones, Craig Verm and Kevin Burdette, are superb singers and actors.
Gaetano Donizetti created dozens of musical romances between 1822 and 1848. Audiences adored them for the lovely tunes, and no one minded that their plots were inconsequential. L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love) is set in an 18th-century Basque village, where Adina, the owner of a farm, resists the attentions of her socially-inferior neighbor, Nemorino.
Lawless sets this version at an olive farm in Italy at the end of World War II in 1945. The setting of the opera has frequently been changed to Italy (the homeland of the composer) and occasionally has been updated to the 1940s, as by the Academy of Vocal Arts in 2012.
While some patrons expressed bewilderment at those changes, I was content. Making Adina a schoolteacher instead of a farm owner does no harm, and turning Nemorino into an auto mechanic, in work cap and overalls, is clever. Instead of the arriving soldiers being Italians, they are American army troops, and that also works in this context.
But Lawless’s production adds a plethora of other distracting details. Almost every phrase is accompanied by busy actions that take attention away from the singer. And when Lawless insists on turning this charming fluff into an intellectual exercise, he creates problems.
For example, the time is specifically 1945, when American soldiers occupied Italy. Any cars that Nemorino tinkers with would have to be vehicles made before the war, but he is shown rebuilding an Austen-Healy bug-eye sports car from 1960 with a bonnet from 1965. Another scene stretches credibility with Nemorino enlisting in the American military, ruining a major plot development. It's unwise to impose tricky concepts on a piece that was created to supply simple pleasures.
Pittas steals the show with his expressive delineation of the lovesick Nemorino. His facial expressions and body language are as charming as his singing. Shafer, while she sings very well, fails to embody the bold and capricious personality of Adina. She is the protagonist of most of the action, yet appears passive, her simple pink outfit causing her to figuratively blend into the scenery.
Corrado Rovaris leads a sprightly interpretation of Donizetti’s lovely score.
What, When, Where
The Elixir of Love (L’Elisir d’Amore). Opera by Gaetano Donizetti. Stephen Lawless directed; Corrado Rovaris conducted. Opera Philadelphia at the Academy of Music through Sunday, May 8, 2016. (215) 732-8400 or operaphila.org.
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