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Props to director Stephen Lawless for working a dick joke into his version of L’elisir d’amore. “His ego is large, I don’t know about the rest of him,” smirks Adina about her suitor Belcore, with a corresponding hand gesture that I guess was not in the original libretto (“È modesto il signorino!”: “The little gentleman is modest!”). Donizetti’s comic opera isn’t particularly highbrow to begin with—-a tween romance-level love triangle, kind of an 1832 Twilight: Eclipse, though it repeatedly refers to another love triangle, the French legend of Tristan and Iseult, which also provided inspiration for Wagner’s deadly serious Tristan und Isolde, which the Washington National Opera put on earlier this season. So if D.C. opera fans are going to be subjected to two operas about love potions in a single year, at least one of them should acknowledge the silliness of the premise.
But aside from lightening the mood, The Elixir of Love has little purpose to serve either audiences or the WNO. A third-run production of a frequently performed opera standard, Elixir is essentially a placeholder in a season that already hit its climax with the excellent Moby-Dick. There are no major stars to hype like Deborah Voigt for Tristan (who didn’t make it in the end). In fact, like Voigt, Ekaterina Siurina, who was scheduled for the lead female role of Adina, dropped out for health reasons, so the part goes to newbie Ailyn Pérez, wife of nearly newbie Stephen Costello, who made his WNO debut last month as Ishmael in Moby-Dick and takes the male lead here as Nemorino. The singing is workmanlike but nothing astounding. The set—-a big barn, presumably in 19th century Italy but it could be anywhere—-is well-designed but not terribly innovative. The music, conducted by another newbie, Ward Stare, is unobtrusive but weak and hardly joyous.
So what you’re left with is a decent three-hour distraction from watching your brackets go bust but, like Dayton’s upset of Ohio State, probably not something you’ll remember by the Elite Eight. The story centers on meek Nemorino who, desperate to win the heart of Adina away from visiting military officer Belcore, turns to a snake oil peddler, Dulcamara, who sells him a “love potion” that’s really just booze. If there’s a bright spot, it’s Costello, whose tenor remains rich and never reedy, and delivers a sweetly earnest “Una furtiva lagrima,” the opera’s signature aria. It’s a welcome respite from all the mugging, physical humor, and non sequiturs that fill space in the rest of the production and don’t always make sense (what’s a leprechaun doing here?). The impression left by the remaining cast is more a matter of stage antics than vocal ability. Simone Alberghini, as Belcore, is a cartoonish villain—-Snidely Whiplash, to be precise—-whose mustache and eyepatch are more arresting than his baritone. As Dulcamara, Nicola Ulivieri rushes so much that he only seems to be singing about 60 percent of the time. And Pérez, while owning her queen bee role with gusto, has a limited range and peters out a bit at the end of some of her runs.
Elixir opens on the heels of WNO’s unveiling of its 2014-2015 season. After their success putting on a 21st century opera this season, one would hope there’s been a new precedent set for bolder programming in the future. Rather, next season promises one new production of another old chestnut (La bohème), two more revivals (The Flying Dutchman and Cinderella), and just one somewhat intriguing surprise (Daniel Catán’s Florencia in the Amazon). Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Opera announced it will finally stage Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams’ controversial opera about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front. At least the WNO will close out this season with a new production. Of…The Magic Flute. Hey, don’t say Washingtonians don’t know how to take risks!
The Elixir of Love continues through March 29, at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. In Italian with English surtitles. $25 – $300.
Photo by Scott Suchman