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When the curtain went up on the Boston Lyric Opera's "L'Elisir d'Amore," everyone was amazed. The lighting evoked Bellini's "The Feast of the Gods," or the video to "Losing My Religion." Aggressively rustic patchwork dresses and apple baskets, along with a frail red wooden ladder, made certain that this Donizetti comedy would not suffer from any absurd modern setting. The simple but handsome picture frame around the luscious stage set was a perfect touch. Anything so beautiful as all this, one thought, promises to be entertaining.
The orchestra had extended a similar musical promise with its sparkling performance of the overture. The music-making was superb from the outset: members of the chorus blended well with each other and sang fortissimo without overwhelming Christina Harrop's slight Giannetta. Gregory Turay turned Nemorino's first tenor solo into a great vocal cadenza. Soprano Lisa Saffer's Adina soon demonstrated that her coloratura could amply meet the demands of the bel canto style.
The real entertainment began when baritone Earle Patriarco's Sergeant Belcore took the stage. A classic miles gloriosus, this Belcore had a vapidity no strutting could conceal. Equally but independently ridiculous was bass Dale Travis' Doctor Dulcamara, a hobo-quack who bore an eerie resemblance to the poet Donald Hall. Dulcamara's vendor antics completely undercut his dramatic entrance and resonant "udite" ("listen!"), and his abracadabra, Darkwing Duck gesturings made one laugh out loud. If it hadn't been for the skillful comic acting of these two, the farcical plot would have been in awkward tension with the gorgeous music. Though Donizetti saves his very best for Nemorino's duets with Adina, every major character enjoys at least a few minutes of choice aria.
The plot of the opera needs no emphasis here because the production didn't emphasize it either: like almost every other opera buffa, "L'Elisir" has a lot to do with jealousy, wine, and a lot of coincidences. The details of Felice Romani's libretto are hardly indistinguishable from those of most of Donizetti's more than 30 other comedies, save for the introduction of a pharmacy on wheels. Here's all you need to know: Uniforms are sexy, but enough money can make anyone seem lovable. Bordeaux is worth whatever you pay for it. People are really, really stupid.
Though the supertitles were easy to follow, sometimes the translations were weak. "Oh what a pleasant warmth runs through me," the English ran for one of Nemorino's declamations. "Perhaps she feels the same flame." Likewise, to translate two ultra-colorful words, "buffone" and "ragazzo," both as "fool," seemed unimaginative. It was more rewarding to listen to the mellifluous Italian than to fix one's eyes on the words above the stage.
Though the finale of Act I, where a duet becomes a trio and then a quartet, is the opera's grandest moment, there are more musical gems in Act II. This is true partly because the orchestra's role becomes more important: it offers sympathy for the lovelorn Nemorino. Adina's emotional volatility is manifest in ever-higher notes and ever-wider leaps. Turay and Saffer, by far the most talented singers in the production, were brilliant throughout. His rendition of "Una furtiva lagrima" got more applause than any other aria; her passionate confidence in the panacea of her own charm had the audience all set to hear "Vedrai, carino" from "Don Giovanni."
When Nemorino and Adina are finally in each other's arms, having each, in their own ways, avoided the military life, their bubbliness is intolerable--but only if you take it seriously. The prancing and frolicking in "L'Elisir" are no more sincere than Dulcamara's remedies. This production succeeds because it keeps itself in the highest register of silliness. Anyone in pursuit of musical pleasure or simply a few guffaws should check it out.
This production is the first of a two-part celebration of Donizetti's 200th birthday by the BLO. The second part, coming up in October, will be "Lucia di Lammermoor." "L'Elisir" continues tomorrow at 7:30 P.M., and concludes Sunday with a 3 P.M. matinee. Tickets are $25-$95, with half-price student rush two hours before each show.
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