Wednesday, March 30, 2011
The Elixir of Love Available at New York City Opera
By Mary Sheeran
I was at a writing conference recently, with the “hot genres” being hocked around me as if they could cure the ills of publishing. That means I was seeped in time travel, alternate universes and parallel time concepts. So I felt right at home when the curtain went up on New York City Opera’s production of The Elixir of Love and found a 1950s diner on some southwest rural stretch of American road, with everyone was jitterbugging to – of all things – Donizetti. In Italian! (So why don’t they call it L’Elisir d’amore?) I’d never realized how up with the times opera could be. This production of Jonathan Miller’s is one alternate universe with subtitles trying to bring Donizetti up-to-date. But the trouble with wandering through the quarks of time in most works of art is that it really doesn't matter. Donizetti already was up-to-date.
As I sat back to watch Nemorino (David Lomeli) in his blue collar work uniform sadly pining for the owner of Adina’s Diner with a Coke in his hand, I supposed that the diner could be a parallel to an Italian pastoral setting, but I had already been caught up by Nemorino’s plight, which takes just a few moments to recognize. With Nemorino, you don’t need anything else. Without him, no production design will make sense.
Maybe this could have been one of the “jump the shark” episodes of “Happy Days” with the Fonz as Belcore and Tom Bosley as Dulcamara. I can almost see it now (although they’d probably don Italian pastoral costumes…). But no, his opera translates to us without a cent to spare on making it somehow more recognizable and relevant. Felice Romani’s libretto is ditzy enough for Lucy, but it is believable because of the poor, ignored Nemorino, who just picks us all up with his engaging sweetness and his gorgeous voice, and sure, we’d believe anything. He is the reason why this production gains our affection. We’d even believe he loved that cold money loving Adina (Stefania Dovhan) and maybe he was right, because she was hiding the fact that she loved him. Well, if you believe her, Nem, I will!
The story has several stock characters from 19th century comic bel canto operas, the sort Donizetti (La Fille du Regiment, Don Pasquale) could write with both hands tied behind him. You’ve got the snake oil doctor and the handsome braggart of a soldier. We all get these two no matter when in time we're placed. And yet, as we laugh, the composer can deliver the most beautiful music so that comedy turns to pathos or human drama on a 16th note. So throw a zippy convertible on stage (and it hogs the stage, I assure you) or dress the guys in leather jackets, no matter. If you don’t feel anything for Nemorino, nothing else will work. Because Nemorino is you and me. So Nemorino had better be good.
Not a problem in this production. Lomeli plays the ardent, slightly bumbling fellow to perfection. He has a rich, generous voice that does not overpower but has a firm center, so that his music floats around you like a caress. He sings and acts with great feeling, without even looking as if he’s carrying us along at every step. His famous Act 2 aria, the well loved “Una furtive lagrima,” is a star making aria (see Enrico Caruso or Luciano Pavarotti), and he sings it beautifully, straight to us.
As entertaining as the other characters are, they’re pretty much living in one dimension. Dovhan sings Adina with a lovely voice, but Adina is one of Donizetti’s least sympathetic characters. When she can finally display deep feeling in her Act 2 aria, “Prendi, per me se libero,” it’s a shame because the aria never gets going, it’ s all starting and stopping, very tough to carry over. She does well, a bit uneven at the top, but the aria’s almost a no go, except we trust that Nemorino loves her. José Adán Pérez’s Belcore (an army guy here) swaggeresjust fine as Belcore, although he could have projected his voice and his acting more. I could say as much for Marco Nisticò’s Dr. Dulcamara, who played the sly quack -- who just happens to have a stock of Tristan’s love potion in his convertible -- but he didn’t take full vocal advantage of the fun Donizetti gave him musically.
I’m not sure why Miller felt he had to move the opera to our 1950s, and it’s been done before with other operas. But Miller couldn’t disguise Donizetti’s world or convince me that people in the 1950s were as isolated from the world (Radio? Jukebox?) as 19th century peasants. Nor could anyone could disguise the charm and whimsy of this opera, which is a happy elixir for anyone with a heart no matter where and when it’s set.
The Elixir of Love. Music by Gaetano Donizetti. Libretto by Felice Romani. Production by Jonathan Miller (2006). Conducted by Brad Cohen. Set and costume designer: Isabella Bywater. The opera was first performed in May 1832, in Milan.
New York City Opera’s production of The Elixir of Love plays through April 9 at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. For tickets and information, go to www.nycopera.com.
Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet (www.questofthesleepingprincess.com) and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a pianist discovering that her mother was a healing woman of the Washo tribe (www.whohavethepower.com). She is also a singer, having sung in several operas in New York City companies as well as in recital halls and cabaret rooms throughout the city.