Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent reviews of Dial M for Murder, The Nosebleed and The Carp Who Would Not Quit and Other Animal Stories
Last season Minnesota Opera mounted an altogether delightful production of another comic opera by Donizetti, The Daughter of the Regiment, totally winning over its audience. The company wisely judged that it is not at all too soon to return to the prolific Italian composer whose work flourished throughout the first half of the nineteen century. The result is another jubilant success.
This The Elixir of Love is gorgeously sung (in Italian, with supra-titles) by all five principals, along with the Minnesota Opera Chorus, under the direction of Celeste Marie Johnson, and beautifully played by the Minnesota Opera Orchestra, conducted by newly appointed Principal Conductor Christopher Franklin. Its staging by Daniel Ellis draws out the work's abundant comedy while leaving space for the emotional journey of its two main characters to reach its altogether satisfying end. In busy scenes such as a village of orange grove workers lunching al fresco, or a wedding banquet, or the entire populace aroused by the arrival of a travelling purveyor of miracle cures, every individual on stage is brought vibrantly to life; yet when there is need to focus on a specific character, Ellis draws our attention there.
Donizetti set his opera in the early 1800s, placed in a small village in the Basque region of Spain. Ellis and his design team shifted the time to the early 1900s and relocated it to a California orange grove. Adina is the grove's beautiful owner. She is a temptress who prides herself on having a different lover every night. One of the workers in the grove, the earnest Nemorino, is head-over-heels in love with her but doesn't expect her to ever return his ardor. Still, he summons the courage to express his feelings to her, and as expected, she rebuffs him–but gently. She is independent, not cruel.
A band of soldiers arrives and their leader, Belcore, immediately spots Adina and decides that he must have her. Adina is appalled by his arrogance but plays along as a game, which drives Nemorino to despair. A self-proclaimed doctor, Dulcamara, arrives with a truck full of bogus miracle cures for any ailment, and Nemorino asks him for an elixir that can make Adina fall in love with him. Thanks to his quick-thinking assistant, Dulcamara concocts a potion for Nemorino out of wine and orange juice, which makes Nemorino tipsy. Between that and the nonchalance he gains by believing that soon Adina will be his, Nemorino is changed, and this affects Adina's feelings for him. That and an unexpected message about a distant relative throw the rest of the narrative into a series of madcap episodes, interrupted by heartfelt expressions of feeling, that manage to wrap themselves up into a joyfully tidy ending.
Andrew Stenson sings the part of Nemorino. With a well-rounded tenor, he sweetly expresses the sincerity of Nemorino's love for Adina, winning us over early on with his aria "Quanto è bella, quanto è cara" (How beautiful she is). In the second act Stenson captures our hearts (and brings down the house) with "Una furtiva lagrima" (A furtive tear), the opera's most beautiful and best-known aria. Vanessa Becerra returns to Donizetti after singing the title role in The Daughter of the Regiment. As Adina, she conveys the prosperous woman's spirit of maintaining control of her life, including her love-life, aptly expressed by her clear soprano in "Della crudele Isotta" (Of the cruel Isolda). Becerra deftly expresses the shifting nature of her feelings as she realizes that she may actually care for Nemorino, reaching its apex in another beautiful aria, "Prendi, per me sei libero" (Take it, I have freed you).
Stefano De Peppo brings comic flair to the role of the charlatan doctor, Dulcamara, his oaken bass bringing a cynical gravitas to his efforts to separate the villagers from their money in "Udite, udite, o rustici" (Listen, listen, o peasants). Joseph Lattanzi is all ego and posturing as Belcore, brazenly declaring his superiority in "Come Paride vezzoso" (Just as the charming Paris), which Lattanzi delivers with a rich baritone. Victoria Korovljev sings the small role of Giannetta in a beautiful soprano. There is another principal performer, but she does not sing–or speak–at all. Gemma Isaacson plays Dulcamara's assistant quite effectively, using only gestures and movements to convey her thoughts.
The design team has wholly embraced the southern California, early twentieth-century setting. Scenic designer Jaime Mejia created a stunning white mission-style villa, with graceful staircases from its terraces to the ground, and rounded arches above the doors and windows, along with enough orange trees and crates of fruit to establish the setting. Angela M. Kahler's costumes convey the look of the era, including the wide pants worn by women for working in the fields, and the bright party apparel worn for a wedding celebration, which give a nod to a Mexican influence. Cheri Prough Devol's lighting brightens the sky at the height of the day, sparkles as the sun sets to the west, and creates a festive glow to light the night for a wedding party.
In the end (spoiler alert), we know that what brings Nemorino and Adina into one another's arms is not the bogus elixir, but the courage to face and reveal their true feelings. This certainly may count as the opera's message, if it is felt that an opera needs to convey a message beyond the power of its music and the splendor of its staging. Even with that message clearly conveyed, the comical business that brings The Elixir of Love to a close adds a satiric punch that provides exactly the right feeling as the curtain comes down.
Minnesota Opera has come through with another winning production. No elixir is required to fall love with this vibrant staging of The Elixir of Love.
The Elixir of Love runs through February 4, 2043, at Minnesota Opera, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-333-6699 or visit www.mnopera.org.
Music: Gaetano Donizetti; Libretto: Felice Romani; Conductor: Christopher Franklin; Stage Director: Daniel Ellis; Choreographer: Heidi Spesard-Noble; Scenic Design: Jaime Mejia; Costume Design: Angela M. Kahler; Lighting Design: Cheri Prough Devol; Wig, Hair and Make-Up Design: Emma Gustafson; Intimacy Director: Alessandra Bongiardina; Head of Music and Assistant Conductor: Mario Antonio Marra; Principal Coach and Chorus Director: Celeste Marie Johnson; Répétiteurs: Erica Guo, Eric McEnaney; Assistant Stage Director: Margaret Jumonville; Stage Manager: Jonathan S. Campbell.
Cast: Vanessa Becerra (Adina), Stefano De Peppo (Dulcamara), Gemma Isaacson (Dulcamara's Assistant), Victoria Korovljev (Giannetta), Joseph Lattanzi (Belcore), Andrew Stevenson (Nemorino).