Is it an opera or a musical? It’s a question one could ask about the bulk of the In Series’ productions, which tend to straddle the space between the two. The series’ season opener, Love Potion #1 (L’Elisir d’Amore), skews more in the musical-theater direction. And it works, taking on just enough of the Donizetti original—-it’s more of a tribute than a remake—-to bring the comic opera’s best qualities in line with those of the company. The result is a sweet, fairly cheesy adaptation that squeezes a lot of fun out of an otherwise familiar boomer nostalgia trip.
The In Series is the hidden treasure of D.C.’s opera world. Though it’s been around for nearly 30 years, it’s long flown under the radar because its productions both blend and defy standard categories, spanning everything from cabaret to zarzuela. Both by choice and financial necessity, the company distinguishes itself with small casts, intimate performance spaces, and accessible, contemporary works written in English and Spanish—-Latino artists and traditions are another emphasis of the In Series.
Love Potion #1, a riff on Gaetano Donizetti’s Elixir of Love, fits all of these criteria. Director Nick Olcott time-warped the Italian opera from 18th century Basque country to 1950s D.C.—-in a high school populated by such stock figures as “the cheerleader,” “the preppy boy,” “the jock,” etc.—-after noting that the vain, insecure characters in the original “more closely resemble adolescents than the adults they’re purported to be.”
Donizetti is a rare, and slightly risky, choice for the In Series. The company prefers to take on either 18th or 20th century fare; executive director Carla Hübner acknowledges that the romantic-era operas of Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, and the like are usually too grand in scale for a small company to tackle. But Elixir of Love is simple enough to be whittled down—-both Donizetti’s light score, and Felice Romani’s libretto, which Olcott has reworked in English (sprinkled with Spanish; the cast includes Peruvian baritone Alex Alburqueque and Bolivian tenor Pablo Henrich-Lobo, who plays a Latino student).
So in Olcott’s version, country bumpkin Nemorino becomes a geeky teen nicknamed “Nerdorino,” and the object of his affection, Adina, is the school’s queen bee. Nemorino’s rival Belcore, no longer a military officer, is a greaser composite of James Dean and the Fonz, oozing hormones and Brylcreem. And elixir-peddler Dulcamara is a chemistry nerd who explains his funny name with “I’m Dominican.” The basic plot lines are the same—-Adina’s interest in new kid Belcore over lovestruck Nemorino drives the desperate dweeb to purchase a bogus concoction that Dulcamara says he cooked up in chem lab (and actually swiped from mom and dad’s liquor cabinet). After downing the contents, Nemorino drunkenly gains newfound confidence that convinces him, and later even Dulcamara, that the potion works. But Nemorino must still compete with Belcore’s bad boy charms before Adina can make the correct, all-important choice of who to go steady with.
When it comes to the music, Olcott’s whittling is nearly skeletal. The In Series gets props for investing in live music both for Love Potion and its season closer, Mozart’s Idomeneo, in June. For Love Potion, they have a string quartet and piano, and so Donizetti’s orchestral score is reduced to spare selections for a chamber ensemble. It’s a nice addition that was nevertheless wobbly at times, particularly during the faster passages, and either the piano was tuned sharp, or the strings flat.
Like his character Nemorino, tenor Henrich-Lobo starts off meekly but exudes more confidence as either the elixir takes effect or his vocals cords warm up, coming on strong for the opera’s most famous aria, “Una furtiva lagrima.” But the star of the show is soprano Laura Choi Stuart as Adina, whose clear voice sparkles throughout. Underutilized is Laura Wehrmeyer as Janet, aka Giannetta or “the second most popular girl in school,” who stands out powerfully among the secondary characters. The ensemble numbers weren’t always even, or in time. But it’s a young cast overall, including some performers who are still in college, and look to have good futures ahead of them.
Love Potion #1 tells a familiar story with familiar characters, gets easy laughs, even works in a cute Glee-inspired number of “That’s Amore” in the middle. That it manages to stay mostly true to Donizetti is almost a bonus. The few rough spots are reflective of the In Series’ tendency toward novel ideas that, with limited resources, can suffer a bit in execution. But it’s not the Met, and it’s not really L’Elisir d’Amore either. And that’s basically the point.
Love Potion #1 plays through Saturday, Oct. 29 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. $20-$40. (202) 204-7763.