‘The Elixir of Love’ (L’elisir D’amore) at Washington National Opera

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Washington National Opera harvests the laughs with its production of The Elixir of Love (L’elisir D’amore). After a risk-taking season of world premieres and new American works like The Lion, The Unicorn, And Me, and Moby-Dick, and the reimagining of The Force of Destiny, WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello returns to a classic bel canto comic opera complete with historically accurate, traditional staging. The Elixir of Love was composed by Gaetano Donizetti with a hilarious libretto by Felice Romani. The opera is sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Sarah Coburn (Adina). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Sarah Coburn (Adina). Photo by Scott Suchman.

After its debut in 1831, it became the most performed opera of the decade. That has been true in the intervening centuries as well. There have been several other years where there are more productions of The Elixir of Love mounted than any other opera. WNO has staged it five previous times; this particular production debuted in 1997 and was first revived in 2006. The house was packed once again.

Why does the world love it so? For one, it’s beautiful. Bel canto means beautiful singing in Italian and these operas focus on vocal acrobatics sometimes over character and staging. But I think everyone loves The Elixir of Love because its characters are so perfectly captured.

It tells the universal story of hopeless love with a loveable dreamer for a hero, Nemorino (Stephen Costello). Daniel Montenegro plays Nemorino on select dates. Costello has a gorgeous tenor and leading man charisma, but sings with pathos and humor on his multiple lovelorn arias like “Quanto è bella, quanto è cara” (How beautiful she is) and the most famous aria of the piece “Una furtiva lagrima” (A furtive tear).

He also has plenty of chemistry with Sarah Coburn (Adina) as they play and flirt with each other and which makes their duets like “Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera” (Go Demand of Yon Light) a real joy. Coburn may be American, but it sounds like she was born in Italy. She relishes each syllable of the tricky vocal passages, though sometimes at the expense of power on her arias, “Della crudele Isotta” (Of the cruel Isolda) and the truly beautiful “Prendi, per me sei libero” (Take it, I have freed you). She plays Adina well, choosing to make her confused and as tangled up in love as Nemorino. Ailyn Pérez plays Adina on select dates

Conductor Ward Stare makes his WNO debut and sometimes seems to overpower the other singers as well, but he is clearly in love with this tricky score and his job doubles during the second act when part of the orchestra marches onstage and plays most of act 2 from the haylofts.

Johan Engels designed both the set and costumes and manages to conjure an Italian village with a brick barn and the fields beyond. The poppies amongst the wheat are a nice touch. The costumes fit the palette of the pastoral theme with women in full skirts and corsets. It may be Joan Sullivan-Genthe’s lighting design that truly transports the audience to Italy though. He perfectly captures the golden Italian sun.

A children’s course adds realism to the village tableaus. The adult chorus is very busy in this piece as they proceed to bring in the harvest in the first act and carry out elaborate gags at every opportunity.

I suspect Director Stephen Lawless is the true star of the piece. While the libretto is truly very funny, he plays up that comedy at every opportunity. When Nemorino’s rival, Sergeant Belcore (Simone Alberghini) arrives, he sings his immediate love to Adina in “Come Paride vezzoso” (Just as Charming Paris), by talking himself up: “I’m good looking and I’m a Sergeant!” But he also comes in with an eye patch that keeps changing eyes, pinching every woman in sight, and smoking a cigarette with which he almost lights the building on fire to the consternation of the chorus. Those small moments of silent comedy pepper the entire opera and keep the audience chuckling. Aleksey Bogdanov plays Belcore on select dates. Alberghini has a bass-baritone that is more suited to a grand tragedy than comic opera, but that’s no hardship to listen to at all and he certainly plays up the comedy of his role.

Simone Alberghini (Sergeant Belcore). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Simone Alberghini (Sergeant Belcore). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Though perhaps the most ridiculous character is Doctor Dulcamara (Nicola Ulivieri), who peddles the titular elixir. Peixin Chen plays Dulcamara on select dates. Peddling the benefits of his snake oil is no easy feat and Ulivieri gamely tackles the acrobatics of his aria “Udite, udite, o rustici” (Listen, listen, o peasants).

Shantelle Przybylo (Gianetta) is a member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and is a joy to watch as she and the women of the chorus go after Nemorino in “Saria Possibile?” (Can it be possible?)

This feel-good production is hilarious and the singing is indeed beautiful, but what stands out most is that everybody involved seems to be having quite a lot of fun, including the audience. Sometimes sticking to the classics pays off because WNO’s The Elixir of Love is a delight!

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.

The Elixir of Love plays through March 29, 2014 at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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