If you need relief from the news and the economy, here’s an aspirin on an elegant platter. Staged in the elegant mini-opera house of the GALA Tivoli Theatre, the In Series’ Love Potion #1 is a heady hit to ease all headaches. It’s pure escapism, a charming satire of the glorious, well-known comic opera, The Elixir of Love (L’Elisir d’amore).
In Series is back, doing what this 30 year old Washington “pocket” opera company does best. With this burlesque of Gaetano Donizetti’s famous bel canto opera, librettist and dialogue writer, Nick Olcott, is adding to his repertoire, and rapidly becoming the pundit of opera send-ups.
We remember his Mozart’s Men, a spoof of machismo in Mozart’s male characters, staged by the In Series in September 2008 at the Source Theatre. Then a sequel, Cosi fan tutti Goes Hollywood, followed in September 2009. What Olcott does is take arias, duets, and trios out of their operatic context and reinvents them with an absurd plot. Olcott’s take-off on Gaetano Donizetti’s 1831 exquisite L’Eliser D’Amore is no different.
In Donizetti’s version, a naïve bumpkin is pitted against a worldly-wise, braggart soldier, and a cynical city trickster, selling wine as an aphrodisiac. The country boy wises up fast and wins his beloved in spite of the prank.
In Olcott’s adaptation, Love Potion #1, we are in the post-W.W.II 1950s, when America was filled with hopes for progress and prosperity. Except for fleeting mentions of “the bomb” and military buildup, this is a time of infinite possibility. Olcott’s lyrics are written in Fifties slang. For example: the student chemist Dulcamara, (Jarrod Lee) in his famous aria about selling the love potion, sings,“It’s crazy! Amazing! Hey, listen to me!”….. “You guys who feel like losers,/You’ll come out cruisers.” Olcott even updates the script by interjecting nostalgia from a Dean Martin song, “That’s Amore” (by Jack Brooks & Harry Warren) for the Girls’ glee club to sing.
In a Washington D.C. high school, saddle shoes, bobby socks and loafers are “in.” Sock hops (school dances) and beer busts are all the rage. Everyone who is anybody has a date for the prom. And a guileless, shy math geek, Nemorino (Pablo Henrich Lobo) does whatever it takes to achieve the highest rank of “cool” in order to “go steady” with Adina, a popular, rich girl (Laura Choi Stuart), who shuns him to “…date every cute boy in school.” Meanwhile, the wily chemistry nerd, Dulcamara, disguises a bottle of wine as a magic Love Potion to make money and help love-struck Nemo win his girl. Male competition from Belcore, a juvenile delinquent (Alex Alburqueque), who makes girls swoon and faint, adds to the tension. Olcott’s Fifties lingo is hip, hilarious and works.
What I found enchanting and drove me, like one of Jimmy Dean’s hot rod cars, wholeheartedly into this spoof was its sincerety. These wonderful singers possess the flexibility, youthful energy and confidence in their voices to peg back the dynamics so that lyrics and recitative are clearly enunciated and can be introspective. Olcott as stage director maneuvers these agile performers so they sing straight ahead to the audience. We don’t miss a word. Rarely have I seen young performers enjoy ensemble harmonizing together so much. Clearly these well-trained, well-rehearsed singers, with gorgeous voices, feel connected to their characters’ bubbly emotional lives and confidently sing their feelings quietly through careful phrasing, ranging from full-throttled vocalizing to shaded and understated pianissimos; rather than pushing everything out at us in belted crescendos.
Here are highpoints. Baritone Alex Alburqueque, dressed in leather-jacket and sunglasses as Belcore, the greaser with sideburns, mimes riding a motorcycle, and messes up the love triangle by blocking the love match between Nemorino and Adina. Alburqueque with thumbs thrust in his jeans’ pockets, makes the role his own as an over-the-top heart-throb, who joins in a duet with lyric soprano Laura Choi Stuart, as Adina who seems to enjoy the flirtation in “Come Paride vezzoso/Come on, baby, let me take you out for a ride.” Belcore is the dangerous bad guy Adina can’t resist. And lyric soprano Laura Choi Stuart, dressed in a powder-blue with white appliqued poodle skirt, handles the tricky coloratura passages firmly and projects a wholesome, friendly, but hard-to-get Adina, who ultimately is spunky enough to save Nemo from himself and stand up to Belcore when he becomes a bully.
Pablo Henrich Lobo has an exceptional, heart-warming tenor voice, and is able to convey an aura of innocence to give full expression to Nemorino’s sensitive introspection about his willingness to die for Adina’s love in the beautiful, famous second act romanza, “Una furtiva lagrima/…She hid a tear, Nemo is no longer a math nerd. He becomes a whizz kid at the game of love. It’s an utterly charming and glowing moment when Adina is ready to settle down, but Nemo, the shy guy, turns the tables and shuns her. We don’t take Adina’s comeuppance too seriously. We sense from the performers that the two are destined for each other.
This is the point where a willing suspension of disbelief helps us accept the silly plot. We are supposed to believe that the chemist’s second love potion that blows up a test tube and causes a fire is as safe to drink as was the wine. The brainy chemistry student, Dulcamara, Bass baritone Jarrod Lee, explains at the end the real significance of the title Love Potion #1. (You have to see the In Series opera to find out what it is.)
Opening night was one of the smoothest I’ve seen in a long while. Music director and pianist Frank Conlon, conducting from the bench of an upstage center grand piano, kept a string quartet at light-hearted, quick tempo, and achieved an admirable instrumental balance with the voices.
Bravo/brava to all including supporting player, Janet (Laura Wehrmeyer) and that great ensemble: The Cheerleader (Kat Keeler); the Jock (RaMond Thomas); The Preppy Girl (Fabiola Echazabal); The Preppy Boy (Noah Mitchel); The Nerdy Girl (Leslie Vincent); and The Nerdy Boy (Jase Parker).
Love Potion #1/The Elixir of Love/L’Elisir D’Amore
Adapted with dialogue and libretto rewritten by Nick Olcott
Based on Donizetti’s Italian comic opera L’Elisir D’Amore and on the Italian libretto by Felice Romani
Directed by Nick Olcott
Music Direction by Frank Conlon
Produced by the In Series Opera Company
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: Two hours plus one 15-minute intermission.