'Elixir of Love': You'll Want to Drink This Operatic Potion
Gaetano Donizetti often takes you to the dark side in operas like “Anna Bolena” and “Lucia Di’Lammermoor,” but with “The Elixir of Love” (L’elisir d’amore) he comes on a little like a Hollywood toastmaster, arms spread wide, singing “Let Me Entertain You.”
Donizetti and the opera, entertain you mightily, as does the Washington National Opera production, directed by Stephen Lawless, at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House now through March 29. The opera may provide all kinds of difficult, even exhausting opportunities for the leads singing the roles of its often mismatched young lovers, Nemorino and Adina, but its plot has sawdust in it, coming not from the sunlit barn where it’s set, but from ancient comedy tonight strains, to vaudeville and burlesque bits and the kind of bits and pieces that strain a fair amount of incredulity.
You can nit-pick this kind of thing as old-fashioned (when did you last see an eye-patch switched for laughs?), but I think it may be best to think of this “Elixir” as a glass of high-grade champagne, and not the cheap wine that the canny salesman and rogue Doctor Dulamara is selling as an all-purpose love potion.
You can quibble here and there: individuals sometimes get lost in the crowd here, especially Italian bass baritone Simone Alberghini as the quasi-villain of the piece, Sergeant Belcore, the blustering enlisted man who thinks he’s a general with an army, and vies for the love of the heroine with an overblown sense of his own prowess.
Here’s the thing, though. Donizetti’s score is gorgeous, smooth, romantic and soaring. It has a little bit of everything in it. It goes down easy and leaves the young American tenor Stephen Costello and, in the production I saw, soprano Sarah Coburn to shine as Nemorino and Adina, the young lovers. (Coburn shares the part with Soprano Ailyn Perez, who happens to be Costello’s real-life wife. Perez will sing the part March 26 and 29, and Coburn will be singing March 25 and 28)
Costello is hitting Washington in grand style—his rangy, clear tenor voice was one of the individual highlights in the WNO’s powerful production of “Moby Dick,” and he makes for an appealing Nemorino, the hopeless and sometime hapless hero yearning for the love of Adina. This becomes heart-breakingly and movingly clear in the great aria, “Una Furtive Lagrima”, in which his love—both hopeful and hopeless—shine through. Both Costello and Coburn proved smooth and flawless in finessing bell canto thrills and trills, Coburn handling the aria “Prendi, per Me Sei Libero” with great warmth.
Along comes the good Doctor Dulcamara, a bit of a scoundrel, who convinces Nemorino that a shot of love potion (poured from a handy bottle of cheap wine) is just the thing to win him the fair, but sometimes fickle, Adina, who has promised to marry the oily sergeant.
The snake oil of a plot that’s part of the opera like sawdust in a Dodge City bar is harmless because there’s a lot of musical good wine and champagne to drink in. The giant barn that constitutes the set is the kind of place where you can have a wedding, a sing-along, a feast or a hoedown. The sun is always shining. Just outside are golden fields of sun-touched wheat for bread or pasta.
This production of “The Elixir of Love” is just the sort of opera that is for people who don’t normally go to the opera. It’s a painless , but rousing, introduction, or, as one friend of mine put it, a “perfect American production of an Italian opera.”
As love potions go, this “Elixir” might not be quite a "Number 9," but it gets the job done as a number eight.
The Washington National Opera production of "Elxir of Love" runs through March 29 at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.