Review: ‘The Elixir of Love’ at Opera Philadelphia

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Unrequited longing for a capricious woman of a higher social class can only be cured by a magic potion, or so thinks the lovesick Nemorino when he overhears Adina, the object of his affection, reading aloud the romantic medieval tale of Tristan and Isolde. Soon afterwards, an itinerant charlatan just happens to arrive on the scene to hawk his spurious concoctions in the village square. While Doctor Dulcamara touts his “elixir of life” as a cure-all for everything that ails you (it also works as a pesticide!), the despondent and gullible Nemorino requests a special “elixir of love” to win the heart of Adina. Though she has continually spurned him, when he begins to ignore her–trusting in Dulcamara’s occult liquid to turn her head—she resolves to make him jealous by agreeing to marry the womanizing braggadocio Sergeant Belcore.

Kevin Burdette and Dimitri Pittas. Photo by Kelly & Massa.
Kevin Burdette and Dimitri Pittas. Photo by Kelly & Massa.

Adding to Nemorino’s dilemma is the urgency of its timing; Adina and Belcore are to be wed that night, but according to Dulcamara, the tincture (in reality, an ordinary bottle of Bordeaux wine) won’t take effect until the following day (allowing the quack doctor enough time to beat it out of town). Will the bogus brew succeed in halting Adina’s planned nuptials? Will she come to love Nemorino as much as he loves her? Or will the gossiping women of the village, who know something that they don’t, suddenly flock to him and try to steal his heart from his one true love?

Performed in Italian with English supertitles, Opera Philadelphia’s delightful production of The Elixir of Love from The Santa Fe Opera captures all the humor and heartache of Donizetti’s 19th-century melodramma giocoso, with its charming libretto by Felice Romini, while resetting the story to the Italian countryside of the 1940s. Nemorino is now a poor auto mechanic in grease-stained overalls, Adina is a wealthy and educated school teacher, and Belcore is an officer in the US Army, serving in Europe and happy to recruit his financially strained rival Nemorino into his ranks.

Under the direction of Stephen Lawless–here reunited with Conductor Corrado Rovaris, with whom he collaborated in Santa Fe in 2009–the engaging cast of this cleverly reimagined version embraces the lighthearted wit and romantic sentimentality of the bel canto classic, displaying both their acting skills in the updated sight gags and their vocal talents in the familiar score. New York tenor Dimitri Pittas, who also performed the role in New Mexico, is irresistible as the lovelorn Nemorino, as he pops up while hiding among the chorus of villagers to gaze at his beloved Adina, dejectedly dangles his arm out of his car in despair over her indifference, and laughs at her while emboldened and drunk on the eponymous potion. His rendition of the famed aria “Una furtiva lagrima” in Act II, in which Nemorino at last realizes that Adina loves him when he sees her weeping “a single secret tear” for him, is heartfelt and bittersweet, and an affecting highlight of the production.

Though sometimes overpowered by the ebullient orchestra, which made some of the softer and more delicate vocal passages difficult to hear, soprano Sarah Shafer, a graduate of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, captured the mercurial nature of Adina in her pure and lucid arias. From the fickle insensitivity of Act I, to her selfless sincerity in Act II–when, in “Prendi, per me sei libero” (“Take it, I have freed you”), she informs Nemorino that she has bought him out of his military contract so that he can remain safe in his native village, where everyone loves him–she delivers the contrasting moods and character development with emotional credibility.

Bass Kevin Burdette (who appeared in Opera Philadelphia’s Cold Mountain earlier this season) is a laugh-out-loud riot as that self-proclaimed “grand, Encyclopaedic doctor” Dulcamara of “Udite, udite o rustici” (“Listen, listen, o peasants”), relishing his deceptions and playing the crowd, as he throws flyers around the square, attracts an audience with his portable phonograph, and cons them into buying his phony elixir. Rich baritone Craig Verm brings the right amount of laughable ego and roving eye to the inconstant Belcore, soprano Katrina Thurman amuses as the village gossip Giannetta, and Opera Philadelphia President and General Director David Devan makes a rollicking appearance that generates laughter and surprise from the audience.

Ashley Martin-Davis’s costumes and set successfully evoke the era, with colorfully patterned short-sleeved dresses and aprons for the women, military uniforms, vests, and pin-striped suits for the men, and a towering mid-century style billboard that serves as a backdrop and changes its advertisements with the different scenes and plot points. The design also includes clever elements that visually and metaphorically reinforce the comedy, with references to Nemorino’s repair shop (a broken down army jeep that transports Belcore and emits a lot of smoke; a shiny red convertible that the mechanic works on throughout the story and successfully repairs at the end) and to the rustic setting (one of the villagers pays for his bottle of elixir with a chicken; a cook works out Adina’s nuptial menu on a blackboard, with a variation on chicken for all of the courses). Lawless even inserts a brief jitterbug into the ‘40s mix, performed with gusto by the ensemble.

Sarah Shafer and Craig Verm. Photo by Kelly & Massa.
Sarah Shafer and Craig Verm. Photo by Kelly & Massa.

In the finest spirit of bel canto, Opera Philadelphia’s The Elixir of Love is a beautiful fun-filled production that will appeal to both opera aficionados and the general public.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission.

The Elixir of Love plays through Sunday, May 8, 2016, and is presented by Opera Philadelphia, performing at the Academy of Music – Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 893-1018, or purchase them online.