Take Some ELIXIR OF LOVE For The Covid Blues

An aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic is that many people can’t seem to shake a feeling of anxiety,  worry, even fear.

Theater and music, at their best, have risen to such occasions, to proclaim the opposite message: Life is a joyous gift from God. Don’t be afraid. What good is sitting alone in your room….

One of the first great operatic affirmations of life came from the pen of Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) ,who,  like William Shakespeare, was a man who knew both the comic and tragic sides of life, and wrote brilliantly about each. With The Elixir of Love, Donizetti  gave the world a hymn to hope which has lasted for hundreds of  years, and been performed in just about every country in the world. His lowly hero Nemorino triumphs over his fears and despair through a love which cannot be denied.

And Donizetti was not a Pollyanna about life.

The tragic side of his world would eventually catch up to him. 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.

Them, 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.

Since first experiencing Donizetti’s masterpiece, The Elixir of Love, we have seen many versions of the most celebrated tale of a love potion. The most recent were the 2009 Glyndebourne production wonderfully directed by Annabel Arden. In it, Adina (Ekaterina Siurina, Mrs. Charles Castronovo) reads of the legendary Isolde’s use of  an elixir with her beloved Tristan. Her Adina, played as the wealthy sophisticated village girl, was delightful as the female version of the classic  alazon, an arrogant, full-of-herself girl who is blind to her true nature. Ekaterina Siurina interpreted  Adina as a true, but charming, 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. Her Nemorino (Peter Auty) was conceived as a charming rube in denim dungarees.

Next we saw the Metropolitan Opera’s Elixir of Love with Chicago’s Matthew Polenzani as a dullard Nemorino, Pretty Yende as a happy-go-lucky flirtatious Adina, who enjoyed keeping her suitors at bay. She especially enjoyed teasing the hapless Nemorino. The star of that production, however, was Ildebrando D’Archangelo’s huckster Dulcamara , played as a delightful and ebullient 19th century Ron Popeil selling the Ronco product of the day.

The penultimate Elixir of Love was the Virginia Opera’s production with Cecilia Violetta Lopez presenting a novel and very effective take on Donizetti’s heroine. Her Adina, stuck in the boring countryside, fuels  her fantasy and dreams with books. She lives vicariously through the fictional Isolde. When she discovers 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. The production was notable in introducing a great young tenor, Carlos Enrique Santelli, singing ‘“Una furtiva lagrima”

While Donizetti’s characters may be of a stock nature, the message is universal.

Adina, the wealthy sophisticated village girl, has been played as an arrogant, full-of-herself girl who is blind to her true nature. Nemorino. the romantic hero of The Elixir of Love, 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.

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 a Bordeaux.

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  elixir actually works. 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] 

Stock characters  are not a theatrical disadvantage. Rather, they require imaginative directors and singing actors to try a wide range of interpretations

As a result, Donizetti’s  opera is historically important, and has received  many happy productions featured in many illustrious careers. The Lyric Opera’s current Elixir of Love  follows a long line of winsome Chicago productions.

Donizetti’s opera probably first arrived in Chicago with Cooper’s English Opera Company, in a performance on April 13, 1859, at North’s Theatre on Monroe at the corner of Wells and Clark Streets. Miss Annie Millner was featured at Adina, Brookhouse-Bowler as Nemorino, and Rudolphsen played Dulcamara. On October 21, 1865, New York impresario Jules Grau’s Grand Italian Opera Company  presented The Elixir of Love . Lucy Simons, the only American in the company, made her debut at Crosby’s new 3000 seat Opera House on the corner of Washington and State. (Ms. Simons would later marry Emanuele Musio, the best friend of Giuseppe  Verdi) While the Tribune reviewer did not like the opera, he singled out Ms. Simons for praise.  But the Dulcamara of Mr. Domenico Oriandini was “the gem of the evening.” He “carried the opera upon his back.”[iv]

During subsequent  years the opera was repeated by Ghioni and Susini’s Grand Italian Opera Company, and Brignoli’s Italian Opera Company. Mapelson’s Opera Company of Her Majesty’s Theater offered the opera on January 30, 1884, at McVicker’s Theater on Madison and State, starring the Hungarian soprano Mme. Etelka Gerster (1855-1920) who “was a great treat”, even though the opera was found lacking.

A small Auditorium Theatre audience witnessed  its first Elixir of Love in 1904, produced by New York’s Heinrich Conried and his Metropolitan Opera Company from New York City. The Chicago Tribune noted the opera as “comparatively unknown:”[v] The Polish soprano Marcella Sembrich(1838-1935), one of the greatest sopranos of all time, sang Adina  and the Slovenian tenor Franz Naval (1865-1939) took over Nemorino for the ailing Caruso, who did not even make the trip to Chicago. In 1909 The Metropolitan Opera Company again presented the opera at the Auditorium with American soprano Bernice de Pasquali (1873-1935) as Adina and Alessandro Bonci (1870-1940), once the Manhattan Opera Company’s rival to Caruso, as Nemorino.

Both the Chicago Opera Association (later the Chicago Civic Opera) and the Ravinia Opera presented Donizetti’s comic opera regularly in the 1920s. The performances would feature such operatic stars as Florence Macbeth. For a 1921 performance the Auditorium’s curtain would not rise due to an electrical power drop. The stage crew rushed to the Congress Hotel across the street to shut down the elevators and all unnecessary lights so that the curtain could be raised. On July 10, 1925, Ravinia found the Spanish coloratura, outstanding comedienne, and future voice teacher of Maria Callas, Elvira de Hildaga (1892-1980) singing Adina to Tito Schipa (1888-1965), the premiere tenore di grazia of his generation, as Nemorino. According to critic Charles Moore, Schipa sang Una Furtiva Lagrima as “though it were an inspiration from on high, which it comes pretty near to being when he sings it.”[ivi]

A year later Mr. Schipa repeated his Nemorino at the Auditorium with Minnesota’s Florence Macbeth (1889-1966), the wife of novelist James M. Cain,  giving “ the best performance of her life” as the heroine Adina.[vii]

On November 18,1936 a Great Depression audience was full of applause as the Chicago City Opera Company offered its production of the Elixir of Love at the Civic Opera House on Wacker Drive, starring native Chicagoan Vivian Della Chiesa (1915-2009)  as a “jaunty” Adina and Tito Schipa reprising his unforgettable Nemorino. Vittorio Trevisan (1869-1958), the voice teacher of future Lyric Opera founder Carol Fox, called “one of the best buffos”,  sang Dulcamara[viii]

The Lyric Theater presented The Elixir of Love on November 22, 1955.  Nicola Rossi-Lemeni’s (1920-1991) performance of Dulcamara caused critic Claudia Cassidy to name him “the greatest singing actor since Fyodor Chaliapin”. His Adina was Veronese soprano Rosanna Carteri (1930-2020) with “a bright timbred voice” and his Nemorino was Canadian tenor and Mozart specialist Leopold Simoneau (1916-2006), “a limpid lyric tenor.”[vi]

The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s first production of Elixir of Love, borrowed from the Metropolitan Opera, was part of the company’s 1962-1963 season. Mariella Adani (1934-), “small and curved and extraordinarily pretty”, came from Italy to sing Adina. Alfredo Kraus (1927-1999), “tall and striking- he looks a little like a young Pinza- has a voice of extraordinary beauty spun out in pure bel canto.”[ix]

Luciano Pavarotti was the main draw for the opening of the Lyric Opera’s 1977-1978 season, singing Nemorino in The Elixir of Love with Margherita Rinaldi as Adina in a new Giulio Chazalettes (1930-) directed and Ulisse Santiccici designed production. The show “deftly plays the serious and comic aspects both ways: it enjoys the plot nonsense while making sensitive drama out of the emotional character development.”[x]

Pavarotti was unable to reprise  his Nemorino for the Lyric Opera’s 1981-1982 Season. In his place 57-year-old Carlo Bergonzi (1924-) wooed the youthful Isabel Buchanan. Bergonzi, fresh from playing the role at Covent Garden, gave the role an “unusual touch of rue.” Pavarotti joined the cast a week later, still with the magic he had in 1977.The painterly Giulio Chazalettes-Ulisse Santiccici staging was deemed as effective as when first seen in 1977.[xi]

In March of 1985 the Alice Stone’s Chicago Opera Theater presented The Elixir of Love in Gimi Beni’s  “clever English translation” at the Athenaeum Theater. Susan Gonzalez ‘s Adina and Charles Abruzzo’s “wimpy” Nemorino were overshadowed by the Dulcamara of Ronald Hedlund and The Belcore of Paul Geiger. The setting was borrowed from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.[xii]

By 1991, the Giulio Chazalettes-Ulisse Santiccici staging had seen better days. “While Celia Gastia (1960-) and Jerry Hadley (1952-2007) made an attractive pair of young lovers, there wasn’t a great deal of romantic chemistry between them, nor were their performances sharply defined enough to carry the sentimental rustic comedy beyond the ordinary.”[xiii]

Two pair of singers alternated the roles  of Adina and Nemorino for the Lyric Opera’s 2000 Elixir of Love. Ruth Ann Swenson and Vincenzo La Scola tag teamed with Elizabeth Futral (1963-) and Frank Lopardo (1957-). Critic John von Rhein suggested, “The aged Giulio Chazalettes-Ulisse Santiccici production should be given a decent burial after these performances.” Indiana University’s opera director Vincent Liotta’s “stand and deliver staging was unimaginative, awkward, and bordered on the amateurish.”[xiv]

The stage was at long last set for the Donizetti magic to banish the pandemic blues. With director Daniel Slater pulling out all the comic stops in Robert Innes Hopkins’ Opera North settings and costumes, Ailyn Perez and Charles Castronovo are free to romp through the most complete version of The Elixir of Love we have ever witnessed. The production succeeds , in part, because both the stage director, Mr. Slater and the musical director, Mr. Mazzola, know that comedy and music for a comedy,  require more precision in its execution in order to create the illusion of spontaneity. The opening pantomime between Adina and Nemorino during the overture established the precision of action with music beautifully. As a result, Adina’s character development arc is, for the first time, crystal clear. Actions which had seemed random or counterproductive, now, in the hands of the wonderful Ailyn Perez, seem a natural reaction of a complex young woman navigating the always treacherous waters of love. Her thrilling bel canto singing is echoed with stage movements arising out of the melody. Her vocal gymnastics always have a physical counterpart expression.

The  Lyric Opera’s current  production is so captivating that some scenes seem new, especially the ones involving  Kyle Ketelsen as Dulcamara. So authoritative and imaginative was his interpretation and execution, that Claudia Cassidy might just have to rethink her nomination for the “greatest singing actor’, though Mr. Castronovo’s Nemorino  would make the decision a close one.

After hearing Mr. Castronovo sing the famous  ‘“Una furtiva lagrima”, I listened to Tito Schipa, whose name was at one time synonymous with the aria, sing it. Mr. Castronovo’s is beyond compare, as was his thrilling performance of Lensky in the 2016 Eugene Onegin. What was most captivating about Mr. Castronovo’s singing of the confessional aria is that it was a musical/theatrical pas de deux with the  brilliant conductor Enrique Mazzola. Invisible lines of theatrical and musical sensitivity connected the two artists at the top of their game, each totally responsive to the movement of the other, no one seeming to lead and no one seeming to follow. It was breathtaking in its beauty.

Certainly Maestro Mazzola’s work with musicians and  singing actors must be applauded. They are in a sympathetic connection as they perform. The result being something greater than the sum of the participants alone. The same holds true with the exceptional work of the chorus in Donizetti’s very important ensemble numbers.

Enrique Mazzola creates musical excitement. Join him and the Lyric Opera to celebrate the fact of living. Their The Elixir of Love ,is perhaps the finest rendition of Donizetti’s classic  in the long line preceding it.

 NOTE: The length of the scene changes remains a serious problem. These operas were written at a time when scene changes happened rapidly with the wing and drop scenery. A long wait is, unlike an intermission, a bleak break in the action, taking the audience psychologically out of the flow.

[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.

Chicago Tribune, November 22, 1865, p. 3.

vW.L. Hubbard, Chicago Tribune, 23 March 1904, p. 7.

vi Edward Moore, Chicago Tribune, 10 July 1925, p. 21.

vii Moore, Chicago Daily Tribune, December 19,1926, p. 26

viiiEdward Barry, Chicago Tribune November 19, 1936, p. 25.

ixClaudia Cassidy, The Chicago Tribune November 23, 1955, p. A1.

xi Claudia Cassidy, The Chicago Tribune November 1, 1962, p. C1.

xiiClaudia Cassidy, The Chicago Tribune September 25, 1977, p. 20.

xiiiAlan Arter, The Chicago Tribune September 28, 1981, p. B5..

[i] Chicago Tribune, November 22, 1865, p. 3.

[ii] W.L. Hubbard, Chicago Tribune, 23 March 1904, p. 7.

[iii] Edward Moore, Chicago Tribune, 10 July 1925, p. 21.

[iv] Moore, Chicago Daily Tribune, December 19,1926, p. 26

[v] Edward Barry, Chicago Tribune November 19, 1936, p. 25.

[vi] Claudia Cassidy, The Chicago Tribune November 23, 1955, p. A1.

[vii] Claudia Cassidy, The Chicago Tribune November 1, 1962, p. C1.

[viii] Claudia Cassidy, The Chicago Tribune September 25, 1977, p. 20.

[ix]Alan Arter, The Chicago Tribune September 28, 1981, p. B5..

[x] John von Rhein, The Chicago Tribune November 29, 1991, p. BN18.

[xi]John von Rhein, The Chicago Tribune January 16, 2000, p. 76.

[xii]John von Rhein, The Chicago Tribune March 18, 1985, p. D5.


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