COMIC OPERA is a genre that glories in stylization. The simple joys of highly rouged prima donnas pouting with vanity, sighing village simpletons and cartoon-strip gestures flourish at Lowell House this weekend in Gaetano Donizetti's The Elixir of Love, a production which remains unabashed and comfortable in its use of devices that have pleased audiences for centuries--and balances them well enough to sustain its momentary lapses into camp and slang.
Two unconventional touchs give this neatly traditional pageant a sort of down-home sweetness: the converted dining-hall dais with painted flats--a far cry from the classically cavernous operatic stage--and the idiosyncratic English of the translated libretto.
The libretto, adapted by stage director J. Scott Brumit, offers a good gauge of the show's tone, which teeters between the stylized and the awkwardly colloquial. "Ah, Adina," sighs Nemorino, the rejected farmboy. "Why, why must it be this way?" and she answers. "What a question!"
Nemorino loves Adina, hotel owner and belle of a small town in the West. The West of what is never specified, and the saloon's stained-glass windows, the standard Italian names, clash oddly with the smattering of tagged-on Harvard jokes to keep the setting questionable. Adina shuns Nemorino's attentions and smiles instead on Sergeant Belcore, a grimacing, pillow-stuffed dandy who has just marched into town and showered her with his military ego.
In a flutter of duets and trios and sprightly choral spectacles, the rejected Nemorino turns for help to the traveling doctor Dulcamara. This quintessential quack provides him with the magical "elixir of love" (A bottle of Bordeaux) which will transfix Adina's attentions. Adina and Belcore prepare for a gala wedding, and Nemorino sells himself into the army to buy the elixir, and his rich uncle dies, and the elixir works or maybe it doesn't, and brightly garbed townspeople dance and sing about wine and romance.
The voices that hold this lighthearted evening's entertainment together are sound. Both student and professional leads are musically competent enough to keep Donizetti's swoops and lilts of melody sounding natural, though some have less luck with the words. Margery Hellmond '83, who alternates with professional soprano Priscilla Ganley as Adina, brings a supple, textured voice to a series of intricate arias, though she occasionally becomes strident on the showy high notes.
The other voices are uniformly in control of the material, with Larry Indik '81 as Belcore in particular projecting impressive musical confidence: we readily believe, as he smirkingly tells the audience, that he has "never met a girl unresponsive to his helmet." Jeanine Bowman '84 projects equal confidence as the village girl Giannetta, controlling the chorus with a creamy contralto voice.
BUT THE SINGERS HAVE more trouble with the dramatic control demanded by an English libretto. Operatic music with intelligible words is disconcerting enough to require a great deal of concentration, especially as the words are usually so silly, and only Brumit as Dulcamara is at ease enough with the intricacies of the diction to maintain a strong dramatic presence.
Though few escape awkward moments on stage, all the characters rise to moments of lyrical grandeur. Peter Cody, a visitor to the Harvard stage, begins his Nemorino with a strong tenor voice and a characterization even more bumbling than the plot requires, but the magical elixir appears to ease his stiffness. His second-act aria to Adina surmounts the frilly animation of the production, creating, somehow, a wrenching summer-night sweetness between the cardboard storefronts.
The show's small scale works to its benefit, somewhat surprisingly, against what can be opera's most galling problem--supplying some measure of verve to the necessarily two-dimensional chorus. The confined stage boils with motion but rarely disintegrates into chaos. To the plugging-away of a small orchestra that almost always stays together, a motley but well-directed gaggle of sheriffs, goofy soldiers, frilled chambermaids and barroom girls rush around, pursuing bits of stage business with unflagging vivacity.
The vivacity, without the thought, leaps to the eye in color as well as motion. The costumes are from the Loeb's bins, and from scratch, and occasionally, it seems, from Woolworth's. The makeup is self-applied, often with startling and regrettable results.
But in the end, the chorus's carefree inventiveness typifies what one expects, and happily gleans, from an evening of House light opera, its blaze of color reflecting the elixir's goodnatured powers of enchantment. The beholder's eye rejoices in a visual revue with snatches of symphonic pretension, a waltz of cowboy hats and ruffled decolletage and flame-red dime-store feather boas, all swirling away gaily beneath the Lowell House chandcliers.