The magic potion at the heart of Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” is false: cheap wine peddled by a dubious “doctor”. This miraculous brew, he says, can solve the most thorny romantic problem after a sip or two.
However, there is nothing slightly wrong with Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of the tenderly comedic love story unveiled Sunday afternoon at the Lyric Opera House. Set in an Italian beach hotel in the 1950s, the production is heart-wrenching and spirited, an expert blend of soft slapstick and heartfelt emotion.
Director Daniel Slater, designer Robert Innes Hopkins and conductor Enrique Mazzola clearly have a united and nuanced take on this update to the story of Nemorino, a poor waiter, who yearns for Adina, the beauty. from the city. “Elixir of Love” premiered in 1832, but Lyric’s version, first performed at England’s Opera North, is both happy peasants and the flourishes of the aristocratic period.
In this production, Adina (Ailyn Pérez) owns the chic beachfront Adina Hotel. A striped canvas roof houses the large patio set with airy white metal chairs and tables. The fashionable tourists of the 1950s – the women in mid-calf Chanel suits, full-skirted sundresses and heels, men in Panama hats and comfy suits – lounge at the table, smoke, drink and read newspapers. Nemorino’s rival for Adina, handsome Navy Captain Belcore (Joshua Hopkins), blows into the harbor on a zippy silver moped. The quack doctor, Dulcamara (Kyle Ketelsen), descends from the sky in a hot air balloon.
Mazzola, Lyric’s new musical director, has focused on bel canto opera and early Verdi in recent years. It opened Lyric’s season on September 17 with a terribly dark but never muddy read of Verdi’s “Macbeth”. His “Elixir” strikes a skilful balance between the lively, high and ornate melodies of bel canto and the more powerful early Verdi. At the end of Act I, Nemorino (Charles Castronovo) begs Adina not to marry Belcore. A solitary and plaintive note of wind punctuates its ardent and elongated song. These rounded and sporadic toots were slightly comical, but they fit perfectly into the orchestral texture, never disrupting the overall mood. Likewise with the whirling flute phrases which often accentuate Adina’s tunes. Satin and rich rather than choppy and brittle, they described her as a thoughtful, freedom-loving young woman rather than a heartless flirt.
Lyric’s cast is stellar. Castronovo is one of the best tenors in the world and he brought all the power of his warm, manly voice to the role. The opera’s most famous aria, “Una furtiva lagrima (One Secret Tear),” is a showcase for tenors, and Castronovo’s performance took us to the deepest recesses of his slow, uncluttered melodies. . Helped by an empathetic orchestra, his simple, lyrical phrases had room to breathe. Encouraged by Adina’s hidden tear, Nemorino begins to believe that she could actually take care of him. Savoring the silences between phrases, sending Donizetti’s heartfelt melodies to Lyric’s rafters, Castronovo revealed the full force of Nemorino’s hopeful desire.
And, like the rest of his cast, he’s a skillful actor. Completely drunk after drinking the bottle full of elixir, he was no longer the impoverished, timid and love-sick waiter. Put on sunglasses, tie his tie around his head, for a brief hilarious moment, Nemorino was an Italian Elvis, the one who had absolutely no intention of leaving the building.
Ailyn Pérez was Castronovo’s equal in every way. His powerful and agile soprano is bright and clear, but with a burnished luster. She sailed with aplomb in the big jumps and dives of Donizetti and launched her virtuoso flights in the air like so many golden confetti. Cheerful but professional in a pink silk shantung pantsuit, her Adina was a young woman relishing her ability to fly among boyfriends. But we never doubted his warm heart.
With his rich baritone, Hopkins’s Belcore was much more than a smug lothaire. Yes, he looked warm in his navy whites, and he loved the sound of his own resonant voice. But deftly sidestepping the burlesque, his sea captain was delightfully believable: your average step brother, too ignorant to admit his usual magic doesn’t work. Ketelsen’s Dulcamara, on the other hand, noticed it all. Tailoring Its Quack Remedies To The Crowd – Wrinkle Cream For Middle Aged Women? Old codgers craving cough syrup? – he peddled his wares in a booming, fast-paced bass-baritone. Agile and light, he was as cheerful and cunning as a vaudeville barker. As tourists and townspeople, hotel staff and visiting sailors, the lively and energetic lyrical choir added to the fun.
For an audience battered by months of COVID-19, Lyric’s “Elixir” is a true tonic for the mind.