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Ever since its invention sometime late in the 16th century, opera has had one hard and fast rule: You can get away with just about anything as long as you throw in enough good tunes. Gaetano Donizetti probably knew this better than anyone else. By the time he died, in 1848, he’d written more than 60 operas—some in a matter of weeks. Only a handful overcome the laming weight of their cardboard characters and melodramatic plot lines, but all give evidence of the composer’s gift for melody.
His 1832 bel canto comedy L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”) is textbook Donizetti. Choruses of villagers chirp merrily away, comic characters chug through patter songs, and aria after limpid aria floats above the graceful orchestration—all with melodies that wedge themselves indelibly into your brain. But start reading Felice Romani’s libretto and you’ll remember why opera is so often written off as the flakiest and most irrelevant of the musical arts.
The story, which is not outlandish so much as numbingly predictable—it’s pretty much the commedia dell’arte Everyplot—plays like an extended Hee Haw sketch: Village idiot Nemorino has a crush on farm-belt bitch goddess Adina. Just to push Nemorino’s buttons, she agrees to marry blowhard army sergeant Belcore. So desperate Nemorino buys a love potion from snake-oil peddler Dulcamara. Meanwhile, some rich uncle dies and leaves our hero loaded—unbeknown to Nemorino or Adina but beknown to all the gold-digging farm girls who flock to him, making him believe the potion has actually turned him into a chick magnet. The jealous Adina, naturally, suddenly decides she loves Nemorino and marries him instead, to general rejoicing.
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Yeah. Good thing about those tunes.
And good thing Washington National Opera brought director Stephen Lawless back to the Kennedy Center Opera House to recreate his 1997 production. L’Elisir can be insufferably cloying—and notably unfunny—when rolled eyes, puckered lips, and studied pertness substitute for recognizable human behavior. Lawless not only sidesteps the cutesiness but also cranks the characters’ general intelligence level a few notches above rube, having his cast members play their exchanges in sly deadpan, with Jack Benny takes to the audience.
He’s filled the show with great comic bits, too: having an old lady slide a rustic chair around the stage as if it’s a walker, directing Dulcamara to look placidly off into the distance as he smoothly sweeps the wedding-reception place settings into his carpetbag. In fact, Dulcamara gains much from being treated here as an insecure charlatan rather than as the same-old baggy-pantsed clown. And it was nice of Lawless to give Nemorino bigger balls than usual—and Adina smaller ones. The director makes it possible for us to like them as characters, not just as singers.
Of course, tenor Paul Groves and soprano Elizabeth Futral are immensely likable singers, and their portrayals of Nemorino and Adina go a long way toward selling Lawless’ concept. Both were heard at a slight disadvantage in the company of starrier bel canto colleagues at WNO’s 50th-anniversary gala a few weeks back—Futral sounding a little brittle and anonymous next to the distinctive shimmer and creaminess of Anna Netrebko, and Groves’ muscular tone and widened vibrato on sustained notes coming off as a tad inelegant after the sweetness and focused ring of Juan Diego Flórez. But these two American singers are both natural charmers, and both have the bel canto style in their bones. There’s a wonderful clarity and agility to Futral’s coloratura that makes up for the opacity that creeps into her tone on the high notes. And Nemorino’s character only benefits from the rounded, beefier-than-usual tone Groves brings to the role.
There’s a touch of Nathan Lane about baritone Steven Condy’s Dulcamara—a bit enough of the flummoxed schlemiel who fakes his way through whatever’s thrown at him. Mercifully, he never overplays that strong suit. Baritone Marc Barrard, by contrast, very nearly underplays Belcore. There have been much funnier performers in the part, but Barrard’s restraint is a far better choice than sledgehammering the audience with wink-wink, nudge-nudge antics, and he gets good mileage out of the sergeant’s world-weariness and sense of entitlement. Both singers also possess handsome, flexible voices and use them in musically cogent ways.
The chorus of “rustics,” as Dulcamara calls them, makes a fine sound, too, and the ever-precise and energetic Emmanuel Villaume keeps things crackling along on the podium. On opening night, a few of his fleet tempos had his soloists playing catch-up—but once again, that’s a helluva lot better than savoring every morsel, and Villaume can linger lovingly when the moment really demands it.
What I’d forgotten since seeing this production nine years ago was how thoroughly enchanting the design elements are—and not in that sugary, storybook way. Rather than outfit every character as if he should be selling tootsie-frootsie ice-a cream-a, a tiresome choice more than one L’Elisir designer has made, Johan Engels has costumed the cast in plausible mid-19th-century-Italian-village wear, all in a lovely muted palette.
Even better, however, is the set Engels has designed. A single box set serves for the entire opera—the interior of a grand, weathered old barn. The two large doors at the back and numerous gaps between the wooden slats that make up the walls let in views of a wonderfully live-looking wheat field. More significant, they let in the changing light of day and evening, achieved with assured naturalness by lighting designer Joan Sullivan-Genthe. Some of her most nuanced lighting to date, Sullivan-Genthe’s design utterly refutes the convention that comedy lighting must be bright and flat.
Directing, acting, and design really work together in this show, and if the effect doesn’t exactly wipe away 400 years of predictability, it’s nonetheless notable. Here’s a traditional staging that plays smart and feels lived-in, with none of the aimless trudging about and two-dimensionality that people still accept as “authentic” on an opera stage. Donizetti would’ve loved it: All that, in a production as romantic and transporting as the melodies that tumbled so generously from his pen.CP