Gaetano Donizetti was not one to be discouraged. After nearly a decade and a half of relentless composing and 35 operas later, the tenacious 33-year old maestro from Bergamo scored his first certifiable hit. Anna Bolena catapulted him to stardom. Companies from Milan to Naples flooded his desk with commissions. An obliging torrent of blockbusters poured from his pen. Lucretia Borgia, Maria Stuarda, Lucia di Lammermoor, Roberto Devereux, the list of successful tragedies alone topped over two dozen. Donizetti could do no wrong for the rest of his career. It was a comedy, however, L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) that would solidify his international reputation. A worthy successor to Rossini and Bellini had finally been found and duly crowned, a new king of bel canto.
Partnering its glowing Arabella with Donizetti’s enduring classic this October – November, the Canadian Opera Company hosts a 10-year old touring production of The Elixir of Love, still serviceable, certainly, but noticeably theatrically underpowered. First presented by Opera Colorado in 2007, subsequently remounted by San Francisco Opera (2008), Michigan Opera Theatre (2009), Fort Worth Opera (2010), Opera Theatre of St. Louis (2014), Lyric Opera of Kansas City (2016) and now the COC, the show takes an essentially all purpose, one-concept-fits-all-venues approach to mise en scène. Originating director James Robinson struggles dutifully to keep Donizetti’s fizzy farce bubbling. The dramatic results are uneven, the musical values much more robust.
Action is shifted from librettist Felice Romani’s 1830s farm village to idyllic Ourtown, Ontario on the eve of the Great War. A Fall Fair is in progress. An oversized bandstand hung with bunting and Red Ensigns rises stage centre, virtually obliterating set designer Allen Moyer’s puzzling primitivist painted geography. A young woman, Adina, demoted by Robinson from prosperous 19th century landowner to 1900s librarian, is immersed in a book. Quanto è bella, quanto è cara! (“How beautiful she is, how dear she is!”) sings Nemorino, a shy admirer, from afar. Tenor Andrew Haji, cast in an exacting role, consistently impresses. Demonstrably more demure vocally than is arguably customary for the character, Haji is no less affecting, warm and engaging as the awkward, big-hearted country bumpkin turned ice cream seller here. The townsfolk are all eyes and ears, demanding to know what Adina is reading. Such a laughable tale, she giggles — laughable indeed given Romani’s spoofish buffa retelling. A dashing lover, Tristan, consumes a magic potion that renders him irresistible to fair maiden Isolde.
Enter Sergeant Belcore, a swaggering recruiter on the look out for able-bodied men to serve in poster personality Lord Kitchener’s army of red-blooded Britons. The local football team seems a likely source to tap. The shift in perspective from Donizetti’s original, considerably more innocent militarism is startling. Director Robinson’s historically specific approach confers powerful potential resonance that is curiously never explored.
Adina brushes off Belcore’s flowery advances, mock heroically declaimed by raffish baritone Gordon Bintner. Worried that she will not be able to resist the brash sergeant forever, Nemorino declares his love, pouring out his soul in the intense, emotionally pointed recit-turned-duet, Una parola, o Adina (“One little word, oh, Adina”). Adina rebuffs him flirtatiously with an air of seemingly carefree nonchalance sweetly voiced by soprano Simone Osborne. Bel canto rarely sounds quite so spontaneous.
Suddenly, enter Dr. Dulcamara, a travelling quack peddling a miraculous elixir, a wondrous cure-all, Dei topi e delle cimici possente distruttore (“Guaranteed to kill mice and bedbugs too”) which, as it turns out, also doubles as a love potion. Nemorino buys a bottle — in reality nothing more than bottom-of-the-barrel Bordeaux — and drinks it, confidant that Adina will love him as Dulcamara has promised, a tipsy Tristan in a grubby ice cream-stained apron, the very next day.
Nothing, of course, goes to plan. Misperceived motives, exasperation and hurt feelings provoke Adina to agree to marry Belcore in an effort to spur Nemorino to take the romantic offensive. In the midst of much heartache and blustery threats, the house curtain, a panoramic quasi Grandma Moses landscape strikingly out of tune with the overarching Edwardian production design, falls on the chaos, Adina, Belcore and Nemorino waging fugue-like battle.
Back at the bandstand after intermission, Robinson strikes up another festive note all but hidden in the heart of the hulking set piece. Adina and Belcore’s engagement party is underway. Dr. Dulcamara entertains the guests with an irresistibly over the top barcaruola à due voci. A deft singing actor, baritone Andrew Shore mugs and mimes with infectious abandon, joining Osborne’s distinctly hammy Adina, in something of a mini commedia dell’arte sketch. La Nina Gondoliera e il Senator Tredenti (Nina, the Gondolier Girl, and Senator Three Teeth) is every bit the preposterous throw-away the title suggests, one of only a handful of moments in this Elixir of Love when comedy elicits big laughs.
Adina and Belcore leave to sign their wedding papers. Nemorino wanders in. The story promptly takes a number of sharp turns. Determined to buy more elixir, cash-strapped Nemorino enlists to land the quick $20 offered to new recruits. Then comes an astonishing surprise. Adina’s friend, Giannetta, delightfully sung by soprano Lauren Eberwein shares some breaking news with a troop of neighbourhood women. Nemorino has just inherited a fortune from his rich uncle recently deceased. The hushed little chorale that follows, Or Nemorino è millionario (“Now Nemorino is a millionaire”), women’s chorus assembled in a long line downstage, face to face with the audience, straining to tell their secret, bursts with charm. Credit to director Robinson. A bright, witty moment.
Suddenly Nemorino, unaware of his good fortune, finds himself pursued by every girl in town. Dulcmara is dumbfounded. His elixir must be more effective than he thought. Adina fights back the tears when she realizes that toying with Nemorino’s feelings has resulted in terrible mistakes for both of them. Later that night, alone in the moonlight, suitcase in hand, bound for the army, Nemorino sings the greatest of all Donizetti’s great cantabile arias, Una furtiva lagrima (“A furtive tear bathed her eye”). Gentle and piano, Haji electrifies, brave, shining, translucent.
The denouement comes swiftly. Adina intercepts Nemorino informing him that she has bought back his commission from Belcore, ultimately confessing that she is in love with him. Belcore is dismissed. E convien darsi pace ad ogni patto (“You may as well face facts quietly”), counsels Adina. Pieno di donne è il mondo (“Plenty of women in the world”), shrugs Belcore. Dulcamara congratulates Nemorino on his newfound happiness, financial and otherwise, and in the wake of a flurry of last minute sales, bids everyone a fond farewell.
Bel canto is a tricky form. Musical components are rigid and prescribed. Performances risk predictability. Conductor Yves Abel, COC Orchestra and Chorus, all partnering a solid cast of principals breeze through this Elixir of Love, bringing a sense of genuineness to the piece. The music is enchanting. If only the staging and design were as fresh.