The Elixir of Love (L’elisir d’amore) is much more than an intoxicating revival.
Stephen Lawless strips The Elixir of Love of any sugar-coated decor and cartoonish exaggeration and transforms it into an over-the-top comedy, refreshing, thought-provoking and profound in its insights about the maturation of human love.
There’s a lot to be taken seriously in Gaetano Donizetti who was one of the first early bel canto opera composers to rebel against using mythical heroes and heroines and replace them with down-to-earth dramatic characters. In one of Donizetti’s most often performed operas (next to Lucia di Lammermoor), Lawless mixes a recipe of up-to-date urgency into this ultra-romantic classic, written in 1832.
Urgency starts with a lively overture, conducted by Ward Stare, making his Washington National Opera debut. As the curtain rose on opening night, there was hustle and bustle and euphoria before our eyes. The Washington Opera chorus delivered with such synchronized force and contagious vitality, you were up there heaving hay on pitchforks along with the villagers caught in the midst of an abundant harvest.
Even though sung in Italian, The Elixir of Love, previously performed at WNO in 1997 and revived in 2006, plunks us down in a provincial Basque countryside. And even though the set design designed by Johan Engels, doesn’t get specific about locale, maybe that’s the point. There’s a universality here in that this towering interior could be in a village anywhere. Bales of hay squared off and scattered on the floor serve as resting places for the farmers, fresh from harvesting grain fields that stretch to the horizon beyond. There’s authenticity to this airy, rustic, weathered-wood barn, with beamed ceiling and lathe-slated entrances, designed by Johan Engels, who also did the apt, period costumes in muted pastels and hues of cream and beige.
Born dirt poor, Donizetti had genuine interest in the earthy, Italian village life around him. He wanted to bring dramatic realism to the stage. In this production, Lawless follows Donizetti’s yearnings. In Act II, for instance, musicians from the orchestra pit, including a trumpeter and bass drummer, to simulate a brass band in a village square, are brought on stage for the rousing, Adina and Belcore pre-nuptial celebration.
In addition, Donizetti was not afraid to take on serious themes, to confront sorrow and anguish,– and neither is director Lawless. In this staging there are standout moments that explore the psychological depths of pain. The best-known climactic highpoint is the haunting aria, still humming in my brain, that is introduced in the orchestra by the bassoon of “una furtive lagrima:/”One Secret Tear.” It is sung by luscious-voiced tenor Stephen Costello, with lyrical tenderness beyond expectation. Costello’s wife in real life, Ailyn Pérez, who, as Adina, is making her WNO debut, follows suit with the exquisite cavatina, the tentative, but simple “Prendi, per me dei libero/Take it, because of me, you are free,” her announcement that she has purchased his enlistment orders. The chemistry between the two performers was powerful enough to play to pin-drop stillness.
But let’s go back to Donizetti’s characters who are much more than broad, commedia dell’ arte stereotypes. Tenor Costello makes Nemorino, the indigent, country farm boy endearing. Nemorino starts out a clumsy oaf as he slides off a bale of hay and lands splat on his fanny during his courtship of Adina. But Costello’s clear, thrilling tenor voice soars effortlessly above the crowded barn in his cavatina, “Quanto è bella”/”How Beautiful She Is’), as he sings about Adina, the love of his life, and immediately, we are rooting for him.
In an opening duet, Adina, recounts the story of how a magical drink brings together Tristan and Isolde, as the wealthy young, female landowner sings to her confidant, Gianetta, charmingly portrayed, with infectious enjoyment, by sweet-voiced soprano Shantelle Przybylo, from the WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. From the sidelines, Nemorino wishes for such a powerful brew, that materializes with the entrance of the fast-sing-speaking itinerant quack, Dr. Dulcamara, sung by bass Nicola Ulivieri in an ascending scale that escalates into the comic patter song, “Udite, udite”/”Hear me! Hear me!”, advertising his love potion. Dulcamara is the “basso-buffo,” the likeable, cynical trickster, who is on-the-take for whatever he can get, including the tableware, but who peddles his elixir, as an all-purpose cure-all for unrequited love.
Nemorino purchases a bottle of the love potion, actually cheap Bordeaux wine, and takes a mighty dose of it to make himself irresistible and becomes tipsy. As a result, Nemorino offends Adina; and Adina to spite him, agrees to marry the full-of-himself, braggart, Sergeant Belcore, sung with gusto by bass-baritone Simone Alberghini. By the end of Act I, Nemorino is writhing in anguish.
Adina is a good role for soprano Ailyn Pérez, gifted with a flexible voice that can effortlessly reach coloratura range. Her Adina comes across as more of a charmer than an aloof bitch-goddess. Although there’s friction, there are comic bits that expose Adina’s instinctive physical attraction to Nemorino. Her pride prevents her from showing it and her inner conflict makes her sympathetic. When Nemorino grabs Adina and gives her a big smack on the lips, Adina, impulsively reciprocates by taking his face in both hands and kissing him back. Then with mock horror, she turns her back on him and darts away like a bird.
Pérez’ Adina is an unpredictable childish flirt, saucy and immature, who plays the field. She spurns any deep attachments or expressions of heart-felt sincerity from Nemorino, who is too ordinary and boring for her. The moneyed, smartly dressed Sergeant Belcore, costumed in red topcoat and golden epaulets, is a flashier, more desirable catch. In a heated moment, a tug-of-war develops between the threesome, Belcore, Adina and Nemorino. After drinking Dulcamara’s potion, Nemorino with his new-found machismo, pulls Adina one way. And Belcore, secure behind his military facade, yanks her in the other direction, a bit of business, bordering on slapstick, that elicits audience laughter. Yet throughout the sequence there is an aura of naturalness that keep the characters believable, multi-layered and human, not cartoonish.
There’s a passing reference to the streak of cruelty in Adina’s character, pinpointing to her immaturity. You have to listen for it to not miss it. Adina is playing a game of revenge with Nemorino. When Nemorino is not in attendance at Adina’s her pre-nuptial celebration for her marriage to Belcore, she gets upset. Why? “I can’t get even,” she sing-speaks in her recitative. I wanted to cry out, No, he’s a nice guy. Don’t shun him that way for that silly, puffed up soldier, so full of himself. Meanwhile, Nemarino is desperate to buy and try another bottle of the love potion.
Bass-baritone Simone Alberghini delivers a full-bodied performance with gravitas as Belcore who recruits his rival, Nemorino, into the military service by celebrating the adventurous life of a soldier, in an exhilarating duet “Venti scudi”/ sung with military rhythms and long lyrical lines. It’s the only way Nemorino can acquire the money for another bottle of the elixir. The witty recitative patter song from Belcore induced many audience chuckles.
Overall, Adina is a conflicted young woman, more complex than a cardboard, cartoon-character. This may be early 19th century, but Pérez’ Adina is a wealthy woman, who owns estates. She’s liberated. She can have any man she chooses and doesn’t wish to be penned in by marriage. Perhaps she enjoys freedom and plays her advantage to the hilt.
What’s fascinating to watch is how Pérez’ Adina matures into a warm, compassionate woman, capable of eternal love. When Nemorino joins the military and sacrifices his freedom, Adina is made aware of the genuineness and depth of his love for her. Against a darkened open field over which a hazy moon glows out of an indigo, dark-blue sky, the buildup is excruciatingly beautiful. “Una furtiva lagrima” with its dynamic mood changes from hope to certainty, is the turning point aria for lovelorn Nemorino. Then another unexpected twist occurs with Adina’s cavatina, “Prendi, per me sei libero.” that reveals the warm, sensitive and generous side under Adina’s haughty veneer.
This version of The Elixir of Love is down-home, down-to-earth charming, partly because folk dance is a dominant feature throughout. In Act I, during a folk dance the chorus performs, Nemorino, his inhibitions lowered from sipping the elixir, taunts Adina by waving a handkerchief. When she snatches it, the handkerchief becomes a significant prop, typical of the waving of the handkerchiefs in Marinera dancing, the flirtatious courtship dance, popular throughout Latino cultures. In the Act II finale, Adina throws the handkerchief to the wind, and breaks out of her formal, self-contained behavior and runs wildly into the fields to join Nemorino. The comedic roll in the hay is an exalting, added stage direction that takes us beyond the need for translated text. Adina throws her flirtatious handkerchief to the wind and abandons herself to full commitment. This interpretation of The Elixir of Love is simultaneously humorous and sublime.
The use of stage right banners capture this embedded maturation theme. The “Elixir of Life,” or “Elixir of Youth,” (immaturity) ultimately become “The Elixir of Love” at the end. Ultimately, The Elixir of Youth develops into the full bloom and a full harvest of sublime eternal love. Welcome to spring.
The WNO production is worth a go, see. Now!
Performed in Italian with overhead projected English surtitles.
The Elixir of Love/L’elisir d’amore by Gaetano Donizetti . Libretto by Felice Romani . Directed by Stephen Lawless .
Musical direction by Ward Stare . Set and Costume Design: Johan Engels . Lighting Design: Joan Sullivan-Genthe . Produced by The Washington National Opera . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.
Note: If you’re going: FREE OPERA INSIGHTS starts 1 hour before performances and lasts 25 minutes. Well-worth the effort to arrive early. This review reflects information from the pre-performance Opera Insights lecture, led by musicologist Saul Lilianstein. It’s free to all. Starts 1 hour before performance, in the Opera House and lasts about 25 minutes.
Mike Paarlberg . City Paper
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Audrey Liebross . MDTheatreGuide