LA Opera rolls out Elixir of Love for season premiere
by Donna Perlmutter
For reasons obvious to many of us music director James Conlon felt compelled to write a program-book essay in support of Donizetti’s ”L’Elisir d’Amore” (now advertised by Los Angeles Opera as – “The Elixir of Love” -- even though it’s sung in Italian, which is understandable to the local Spanish speakers who comprise maybe half of our city’s population).
Well, we’ll take him at his persuasively written word. There is a case to be made for the whole genre of bel canto opera buffa – you know, the style whose quaint comic clichés come feathered in 19th-century conceits and spills over with lovely lyric tunes and rambunctious rhythmic cheer (that some of us find overbearingly simplistic some of the time).
But never mind all that. Just know that this gorgeous production, new in 1996, and trotted out only once since then, has everything else to recommend it.
As the curtain opens on Johan Engels’ stunning unit set --magically lit (by Joan Sullivan-Genthe) – such sober possibilities as a Chekhov farmhold, with servants as intimates, or Bertolucci’s film “1900,” come to mind. The last thing it conjures is a frothy comedy.
Director Stephen Lawless places the action inside a barn whose huge, slatted gate of dark wood looms over all; a pale sky, framing picturesque hay stacks upstage, makes for a strikingly luminous contrast. The décor becomes a springboard for interaction – workers, gathering wheat and shaving corn from cobs, mingle with the principals: no choruses are plunked down on stage left or right, as arbitrary units.
Lawless’s shrewd touches reject silliness and lend grateful dimension to the characters: Gianetta (Valerie Vinzant) tries to vamp Belcore on his way to woo Adina, then sulks resentfully on failing. Nemorino shows his transformation from woebegone to triumphant by flinging heavy sacks of grain onto a wagon like Clark Kent changed to Superman.
The assembled cast in this 2009 edition suffered two important cancellations – the immensely gifted Rolando Villazón and Ruggero Raimondi, whose Don Giovanni (in Joseph Losey’s 1979 film) lives in my mind.
Still, Giuseppe Filianoti filled the bill nicely as the besotted bumpkin Nemorino, certainly looking the part but also showing the capacity to mock his rival’s antics. He focused his bright tenor well, if without finding much sweetness anywhere or even while delivering the opera’s hit tune, “Una furtiva lagrima” -- though here he did boast an impressively applied dynamic range and head tones to spare.
As Dulcamara, the charlatan selling love-and-everything-else-potions, Giorgio Caoduro, could not match the uproarious antics of Thomas Allen, from the original cast. But his clear, forward-placed, burnished baritone stood him in good stead. So did Nathan Gunn, as the puffed-up, preening regimental authority Belcore, come across with panache, not to mention with his finely crafted coloratura intact.
The star, however, was Nino Machaidze (photo above), the Georgian soprano making her U.S. debut. As Adina, she was the image of a much sought-after, self-indulgent, rich and pretty girl who could also show, in small ways, that she was unnerved by Nemorino. Her lyric voice, a thing of beauty – soared effortlessly, especially in the long-lined passages filled with romantic fervor, and powered itself to the upper climactic reaches with excitement. But for the insistent patter it often turned chirpy.
Leading the whole enterprise Conlon coaxed from the orchestra loving accompaniments – supple, spirited, nuanced and tender in turn. The only disappointment came in Act 2, when a single, mystifying, red light bathed the stage.