VIRGINIA OPERA OFFERS A RADIANT ELIXIR OF LOVE

I first heard about elixirs of love in 1959 when, through my transistor radio, I heard Jed Lieber’s words about

that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth
She’s got a pad on Thirty-Fourth and Vine
Sellin’ little bottles of Love Potion Number Nine

While a new idea to me at the time, the concept of a potion which causes love is ancient.

At the very start of Gaetano Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, now receiving a splendid new production , the best Elixir of Love I have yet to see, at the Virginia Opera the heroine Adina  reads of the legendary Isolde’s use of such an elixir with Tristan. This reading, which passes so quickly at the opera’s opening, holds the key to director Kyle Lang’s stunning presentation of the work.

Stage literature features other elixirs. In Gilbert and Sullivan’s, The Sorcerer, a potion is employed ala Shakespeare’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to cause one to fall for the first person seen. Even Jo in Alcott’s  Little Women writes a play featuring a love potion. But the great saga of Tristan and Isolde has caught the fancy of Donizetti’s young maiden, Adina.

Historically, love potions seem to come in three varieties. The first follows the route of the one Puck uses in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The second type causes the love of a specific person. (This is the type purchased by Donizetti’s rural folk hero, Nemorino). The final variety simply puts one in the mood for love. This type is actually what the opera’s Dulcamara sells – red Bordeaux wine.

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) , like William Shakespeare, was a master of both the comic and tragic plot. With the Elixir of Love, Donizetti gave operatic farce a shove in the direction of sentimental/romantic  comedy. The characters, however, remain rooted in stock comic types.

L’Elisir D’Amore (The Elixir of Love) premiered in Milan on May 12, 1832. From the opera’s beginning, singers have won over audiences with the opera’s fetching roles. The Jewish soprano Sabine Heinefetter (1801-1872) was Donizetti’s original Adina. She debuted at age 15 in Frankfurt. Heinefetter died insane in an asylum where she continued to give concerts to the other patients. Giuseppe Frezzolini (1789-1861) introduced the first Dulcamara. So popular was he that he also played the role in Berlin in 1834 when the opera was called Der Liebestrank. Frezzolini repeated the role  in 1835 in Vienna.  Donizetti called him “Principe de ‘bassi comici” The Prince of Bass Comediens.

The opera would go on to many happy productions as part of many illustrious careers. The Virginia Opera’s Elixir of Love follows a long line of winsome productions.

The first American production of The Elixir of Love occurred in New York City on June 18, 1838 at the Park Theatre, in English, with Maria Caradori-Allan (1800-1865) as Adina. Henry Chorley, the English music critic called her “one of those first-class singers of the second class, with whom it would be hard to find a fault, save want of fire”.  Spirit of the Times, however, was of a different opinion: “Speak not of mocking birds…May she never leave our shores”, The event was most likely a mishmash of various Donizetti scenes and songs under the title Elixir of Love. New York’s Evening Post found the presentation to be “lively and quite entertaining”.

The first production of the opera in Italian in America followed on May 22,1844 at Ferdinand Palmo’s Opera House, opened in 1844 with Bellini’s I Puritani. The theater’s audience was mostly foreign-born immigrants. Their limited financial means caused the management to fail after one season. .

The most famous revival took place at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1904. The Polish soprano Marcella Sembrich’s singing of the heroine was considered  “vivacious, beautiful, and spirited, a tantalizing arch and bewitching Adina”. The New York Times noted that she “scattered runs and cadenzas throughout prodigally.” Enrico Caruso’s Nemorino was hailed: “What could be more captivating, more melting, more flowery in its old-fashioned rhetorical passion that in his singing of the famous air, “Una furtiva lagrima”.  Rapture is no fitting expression for the state of mind he threw the audience” Audiences called upon the tenor for encores. The bass Ernesto Rossi used his Dulcamara “to make the most of the unctuous buffo humor” Finally Antonio Scotti’s Belcore “made an excellent character study out of the sergeant.”

His characters may be stock, but when working on a Donizetti opera  imaginative directors and singing actors have found a wide range of interpretations possible. And the Virginia Opera has both imaginative singers and an imaginative director. Director Kyle Lang must be credited for the lion’s share of what is seen on the stage. One beautiful and evocative stage picture melts into another, as he masterfully moves the principals and chorus around the tricky stage elevations, always keeping the stage balanced and alive with inventive and appropriate stage business. One of the evening’s high points, in an evening of high points, is Mr.Lang’s staging of the chorus singing about “Nemorino is a Millionaire”, in which every member of the female chorus is given a chance to shine, while the story advances. Mr. Lang devotes his considerable creative talents to telling Donizetti’s tale as compellingly as possible, eschewing a faddish regie vanity production in which one’s own story is imposed upon that of the composer. With this production Mr. Lang should surely claim his spot among America’s most able directors of opera.

Mr. Lang is blessed  to have the dazzling unit setting and exquisite costumes provided by the veteran Eduardo Sicango. One would have to go far to find a more imaginative, functional, and beautiful piece of kinetic stage sculpture. The lighting of Driscoll Otto makes everything – set, costumes, and actor/singers-glow.

Every time I see Adam Turner conduct the Virginia Opera Orchestra I am convinced that this opera must be his favorite. His intelligence, passion, and vibrancy create a wonderful bond among orchestra, singer-actors, and audience. I guess, like all effective musical conductors, the opera before him is now his favorite, and he will, by hook or by crook, make it yours as well.

Adina, the wealthy sophisticated village girl, has been played as a female version of the alazon, an arrogant, full-of-herself girl who is blind to her true nature. This was the Adina seen at the 2009 Glyndebourne production of The Elixir of Love, where director Annabel Arden had Ekaterina Siurina play Adina as a true snob. Only the discovery that Nemorino had come to be the wealthiest person in the area could prompt her to show him any affection at all. Her characterization cynically suggested that money was THE true elixir of love. On the other hand, in Bartlett Sher’s recent Metropolitan Opera production, Pretty Yende played Adina as a happy-go-lucky flirt, who enjoys keeping her suitors at bay. She especially enjoyed her teasing torment of the hapless Nemorino. The romantic hero of The Elixir of Love, the young rustic Nemorino,  carries on the tradition of the agroikos or bomolocus bumpkin-buffoon, a self-deprecating country fellow who turns out to be more than he, and we, thought. As traditionally played , Nemorino is not stupid, just innocent, trusting, and too shy for his own good.

Mr. Lang and his wonderful Adina, Cecilia Violetta Lopez, present a novel and very effective take on Donizetti’s heroine. This Adina, stuck in the boring countryside, fuels  her fantasy and dreams with books. Right now she is vicariously living through the fictional Isolde. When she later finds that Nemorino’s atypical behavior has been inspired by the actions of Tristan, she is smitten! So Adina’s elixir of love is revealed to be fidelity to the dreams aroused by her favorite fictions. Ms. Lopez has a wonderful stage presence and a voice perfect for her character. She makes a dynamic partner for the production’s Nemorino, Belcore, and Giannetta. The often overlooked gal-pal of Adina, Gianetta, is played with confidence, ability, and professional poise by April Martin. Whenever she is on stage she is, unlike other Gianettas, a presence to be reckoned with, and her voice soars among the cast.

A descendant of the comedia’s Il Dottore, Dulcamara, the love potion huckster, is a loquacious caricature pedant, Donizetti’s classic eiron, the con-artist. He and his assistant sell the heartsick lover, Nemorino, the supposed love potion, which is actually very strong wine. Matthew Burns plays him to a tee, inventing  wonderful stage business to accompany his commanding and persuasive  voice. Dulcamara’s elixir just so happens to give Nemorino enough self-confidence to stop fawning over Adina. Her decision to  marry the soldier, Belcore, throws a wrench into Nemorino’s plans.

Corey Crider has the right kind of voice to play an effective Belcore. When his character’s humor arises naturally from the situation, he is an effective actor, as well. The first entrance of Belcore and his soldiers seems the production’s only misfire. Their behavior and demeanor suggest they have wandered on from another type of play entirely, a cartoon perhaps. Rather than embodying a stern Belcore and his disciplined troops, as they did wonderfully during subsequent scenes, they presented a burlesque, or lampoon, of the characters, more appropriate to the musical burlesque  of The Elixir of Love written in 1866 by the great W.S. Gilbert, “Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack.” Fortunately, by the time of their second entrance all had calmed down and they performed more appropriately within the original established style of the production.

The coincidental death of Nemorino’s rich uncle suddenly makes him a desirable catch for  Adina, who breaks off her engagement to Belcore, and buys off Nemorino’s enlistment contract, signed to gain a monetary bonus by which to purchase a second bottle of the magic elixir. In the Glyndebourne production, money was the elixir of love which causes Adina to drop Belcore for Nemorino.  In Bartlett Sher’s interpretation,  Adina paid off Nemorino’s enlistment fee totally unaware that he is now a rich man. She loves him for whom the elixir has revealed him to be, before his inheritance.

The well-worn script allows for  many interpretations. In 2012 tenor Rolando Villazon directed and starred in a production of Elixir for the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Germany set in a silent movie recording studio while filming a wild western movie! The Virginia Opera had a wide range of possibilities from which to choose in interpreting their Elixir of Love.  In Kyle Lang’s production Nemorino’s Tristan-like behavior wins Adina’s heart.

The opera’s events constitute what Elder Olson calls “a plot of folly conducted by a well-intentioned fool”[i], Nemorino. However, in this case the foolishness of the elixir actually does the trick. In fact, the elixir is the central device, the essence of this comedy. “The essence of Comedy is always that some redeeming truth has to be brought out of the shadows into the light.”[ii]

In vino veritas: Only when Nemorino is under the influence of the alcoholic potion can Adina see who Nemorino truly is – a would-be Tristan, worthy of her Isolde-like love.

Discovering Nemorino’s identity causes a reversal in the course of the plot action. Such a reversal is, according to Aristotle the finest type of action for a comedy. “The discovery bringing friendship…and the reversal bringing success…, will most effectively occasion the pleasure and laughter which it is the function of comedy to arouse.”[iii] 

Carlos. Enrique. Santelli.

Remember that name. Mr. Santelli is on the road once traveled by Enrico Caruso, and like many who heard Caruso as Nemorino, we will be able to say, someday, “I remember him when he played with the Virginia Opera!’“Una furtiva lagrima”!  What a voice! A tenor to dream about and to savor when heard. And his acting range and skills should allow him to play leading men in tragedy and comedy alike, and supporting roles in whatever role he chooses. If the rest of the production weren’t so outstanding, his performance would be reason enough to see this opera.

Unlike the happy-ever-after lives of  Nemorino and Adina, Donizetti endured a painful and heartbreaking life.  He  married in 1828 –  a girl named Virginia Vasselli – whom he had first met when she was only thirteen years old. His parents opposed the marriage, fearing that they would lose their son’s financial support. Donizetti’s parents died in 1836, and a year later his beloved Virginia died after a bout of measles and complications caused by the birth and sudden death of a new son, at age 29. She had lost two children previously, shortly after their births. Donizetti wrote, “ I’ll be unhappy forever until our eternal reunion.”

The heart-broken composer would never enter Virginia’s room again.

Around 1843 Donizetti’s health began to deteriorate. His memory lapsed. His temper flared. He would suddenly drift off into  a stare. His teeth began to fall out and his legs could no longer support him. Doctors tried everything they could imagine. Donizetti’s friends urged him to visit so they could care for him. His family sent the maestro’s nephew to report on Gaetano. Andrea  found his uncle  in pain, emaciated, slumped, inert, expressionless, confused, alternatively gloomy, taciturn, angry and suspicious, subject to delusions of persecution and compulsive eroticism.

The great Gaetano  Donizetti was institutionalized at age 50. He died the following year. Relatives squabbled over his remaining  financial estate, while Donizetti bequeathed his great and important musical inheritance to the world, a heritage upholding the romantic Adina-Nemorino view love he himself was never to enjoy.

Not matter where you live, you should get to Virginia to see this Elixir of Love. I swear: you will not have seen a better one!

 

[i] Elder Olson. The Theory of Comedy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1968.

[ii] Christopher Booker. The Seven Basic Plots. Why We tell Stories. London: Bloomsbury, 2004.

[iii Lane Cooper. An Aristotelian Theory of Comedy with an Adaptation of the Poetics and a Translation of the Tractatus Coislinianus. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company,1969), p. 197.

 

 


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