Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

The Elixir of Love
Opera Philadelphia
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Rebecca's review of Machinal


Sarah Shafer and Dimitri Pittas
Photo by Kelly & Massa
Opera Philadelphia closes its 2015-2016 season with a new-to-Philly production of Donizetti's eternally popular bel canto comedy L'elisir d'Amore (The Elixir of Love), directed by Stephen Lawless. This staging—which premiered at Santa Fe Opera in 2009—transports the action from the 19th century to Italy after World War II, with Nemorino (tenor Dimitri Pittas) a grease-monkey mechanic and Adina (soprano Sarah Shafer) a country schoolteacher. Sgt. Belcore (baritone Craig Verm) is now part of the U.S. army, tasked with liberating Italy in the wake of Mussolini's fall, and the opera's title love potion (peddled by Dr. Dulcamara, sung here by bass Kevin Burdette) is a red table wine.

Lawless is not the first director to update this particular opera's setting—Sir Jonathan Miller's 2006 production for New York City Opera (later seen at English National Opera in London) took place in the 1950s Midwest, largely inside a chrome-plated diner that Adina owned. However, this fast-paced, enjoyable staging manages to transport the action without betraying the central message of the opera—an increasingly rare feat these days. Lawless clearly borrows from the twinned worlds of glamour and grit that pervade much of mid-century Italian cinema—Adina's stylish dress and wavy coiffure make her a dead ringer for a young Sophia, while the large, fine chorus look like they stepped out of Fellini's Amarcord. All of the directorial choices are in line with Donizetti's lushly romantic music and the seriocomic story he shaped with librettist Felice Romani.

Musically, this is one of the strongest productions Opera Philadelphia has offered in years. Pittas sang Nemorino when this production premiered in Santa Fe; however, he only joined the Philadelphia company two weeks ago, when the originally announced tenor withdrew. Pittas' familiarity with the staging—and the fact that this is one of his signature roles, having also performed it at The Met, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the Bavarian State Opera—help him deliver a captivating performance on short notice. His lyric tenor voice is supple and ardent, perfect to communicate Nemorino's unrequited love for Adina. When he sings that he will die if Adina doesn't return his love, you believe him.

The famous tenor aria "Una furtive lagrima" ("One furtive tear"), delivered in anguish after Nemorino resigns himself to the fact that Adina will never care for him, has rarely sounded so achingly beautiful as it does coming from Pittas. But this opera is a comedy, after all, and he also shows himself to be a deft actor with a light, winning stage presence. In this respect, he is well matched to Shafer, a Philadelphia favorite with a bright, agile voice and a lithe demeanor. Both Pittas and Shafer are equally able to act with their voices and their bodies, something that cannot always be taken for granted in opera. Together, they guarantee an entertaining evening of music theater.

The supporting cast are largely fine, though not up to the standards of the two principals. Verm cuts a fine figure in his army uniform, but his voice shows a disturbing beat for a singer his age. Burdette sounds well, though he seemed to struggle with some of conductor Corrado Rovaris' fleet tempi. Katrina Thurman's light soprano has lovely colorings but is probably a size too small for leading roles.

Despite some coordination issues with the singers, especially Burdette, Maestro Rovaris offers a stylish and alluring reading of the score. It was no surprise that he received the loudest and longest ovation at the curtain call. Comic operas can be a massive bore when handled incorrectly; thankfully, that is not the case here. Quibbles aside, this is an Elixir that Philadelphia audiences will have no trouble falling in love with.

Opera Philadelphia presents The Elixir of Love at the Academy of Music (240 S. Broad Street) through May 8, 2016. Tickets ($19-209) can be purchased online at operaphila.com or at the box office.