IU Opera Theater’s ‘Elixir’ an effective tonic

by Peter Jacobi
Feb. 25, 2019

Scene from "The Elixir of Love."

Bradley Bickhardt as Nemorino and Alyssa Dessoye as Adina rehearse a scene from Indiana University Opera Theater’s production of “The Elixir of Love.”

This was opera for enjoyment: no levels of hidden meaning or complexities for listening involved. From curtain opening to closing, both this past Friday and Saturday evenings, Indiana University Jacobs School Opera Theater’s production of “L’Elisir d’Amore” at the Musical Arts Center provided enjoyment, entertainment.

That’s not only because the presentation was lovely to the eyes and attractive to the ears. It is because the point of attention fell on an opera by a master of the genre and craft, composed and premiered in 1832, in the midst of Italy’s “bel canto” period. Bel canto, “beautiful sound”: We can’t know for sure what those singers of beautiful sound truly sounded like, of course. There are no recordings to let us in on what audiences way back then heard. But musicology about and written reactions from that period reflect the importance of singers being required to produce a vocal product that soothed the mind and melted the eardrums.

I’m not sure if the two casts who shared the weekend offered true bel canto; in fact, I’m pretty sure they didn’t, at least all the time. But they did mighty well with music extremely difficult to pull off successfully. Consequently and rightly so, the audiences treated them in very friendly manner.

They and the chorus and the orchestra (the IU Symphony) had a delightful score to work with, as did those who prepared them for the full staging: a very knowing and skillful conductor, David Neely, who certainly left his mark on the proceedings; a visiting stage director, Linda Brovsky, who kept things moving adroitly and just short of frenzy, and the always reliable and experienced resident chorus master Walter Huff.

The opera is special, part of growing proof that Donizetti, long considered a hack who worked too fast and carelessly, was not so at all. He amazingly wrote more than 70 operas. For decades, he was remembered almost totally for his tragic “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Then, during periodic revival periods focused on bel canto operas, other works of his, the tragic and the comic, reappeared to add luster to his reputation.

One of the first was “The Elixir of Love.” Why not? It’s a melody-bulging, funny, occasionally rueful comedy about characters one can care about. At the end, they — lovers driven apart until feelings in conflict get straightened out — are happy, so to leave us happy. Yes, it’s an “elixir,” actually a cheap Bordeaux wine with label thrown away, that paves the way to conciliation.

Among devotees of these early 19th century Italian operas, Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” appears to have captured the top spot for excellence, often with Donizetti’s “Elixir” following behind. In my view, the No. 2 has qualities that might raise that ranking. No matter: it’s a good show and shown off here in excellent form, surrounded by a picturesque and workable set done for IU Opera Theater a while back by the eminent, then resident, designer Robert O’Hearn.

For what composer Donizetti and what IU Opera Theater intended to do, the product in the spotlight at the MAC (again next weekend) is a class act.

Back to the presentation:

Maestro Neely had the orchestra play crisply, but also with finesse and unflagging energy. His communication with those on stage, both the soloists and the chorus of villagers, seemed assured. No glitches in unison disturbed the never-stopping flow of music and accompanying action.

Director Brovsky made splendid use of the applauded set and knew, from instinct and experience, how to move each cast of young singers to be a part of the story. She did so, too, with the choristers who were given personalities and things to do without interfering with the unfolding plot. That chorus, musically, took splendid care of Donizetti’s bundle of demands. Master Walter Huff knows his opera chorus business.

O’Hearn’s set has passed the test of time and still works for movement and atmosphere, the latter enhanced by the adept lighting, for mood changes and passage of hours, by guest lighting designer Thomas Hase. And the total picture wouldn’t have worked without the attractive period costumes created by IU’s Dana Tzvetkov.

There are two Nemorinos. Friday’s was tenor Spencer Boyd, a dominatingly tall figure with the ability to portray this humble, bumbling, love-sick fellow who sort of emotionally drifts between his village life and an imagined fairyland. Saturday’s tenor, Bradley Bickhardt, is not as physically outsized but has an agility he’s willing to use to convince us his Nemorino also is not quite there but is moved by sincerity and youthful passion. Vocally, they did quite well and delivered what is arguably all of opera’s most beguiling tenor solo, “Una furtiva lagrima” (“A Furtive Tear,” which Nemorino believes he has detected in his hard-to-get Adina’s eyes), with melt and adoration.

The high soprano voices of the Adinas, the hard-to-catch, then finally melting heroine (Avery Boettcher on Friday and Alyssa Dessoye on Saturday), differ in texture but were well capable of mastering the fioritura and belting out the high notes as the role requires. As dramatically necessary, their role’s shift in feelings for the suitor, from don’t-bother-me to love, was clearly evident.

Two other roles significantly matter. One is Belcore, the braggart sergeant who comes to town with his small band of soldiers on assignment and initiates a conquest of Adina, thereby giving Nemorino more heartache. The other is Dr. Dulcamara, a traveling quack dispensing tonics and potions that promise all but provide nothing save fooled optimism; it is he who promises Nemorino the love of all women if he drinks the magic love potion, in fact nothing but wine.

Bruno Sandes and Ian Murrell take on the Belcore character with comic pomp and circumstance and let loose with expressive baritone voices. Baritone Ricardo Ceballos de la Mora and bass-baritone Cameron Jackson make one almost believe Dr. Dulcamara, so convincingly deceptive they dig into their patter song-dominated part.

Best I stop, but this “Elixir” will cure your gloom.

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