Opera Philadelphia closed their 2015-16 season with a new production of Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love,” an unwavering favorite with audiences, despite its more vaporous musical merits. Conductor Corrado Rovaris commented in the program notes that musically, the opera is just as much about melancholy as it is a frothy comic opera, and his orchestra makes that case in sonorous detail. Meanwhile, Santa Fe Opera’ Stephen Lawless directs a giddy scenario setting Elixir in Italy at the end of WWII, with American servicemen, victorious and ready to carouse in a peasant outpost, while their vehicles get serviced.
Ashley Martin Davis has designed an amber lit, understated post-war Italian countryside set with a looming olive-oil billboard over a garage yard where Elixir’s sad-sack hero Nemorino is the local mechanic. He is pining after Adina, the local teacher, who is seemingly too busy with the chorus kids to bother with his advances. Nemorino works on his vintage red roadster and tries to concoct schemes to win her love. She takes enough pity on him to sings flat out that prefers a man du jour than ‘perpetual love is madness.’ And tells him he should quit her and go visit his sick uncle.
Meanwhile, hunky American Sergeant Belcore has just come in on a smoking jeep and puts some sexy beast moves on Adina, who gives him the cold once over “He has the biggest ego, but I don’t know about the rest of him.” The plot thickens when Dr. Dulcamera appears with his elixir that is sure to cure everything from menopause to impotency and also is a love potion. So Nemorino buys a bottle, hoping it will make him irresistible, and the potion is actually a bottle of Bordeaux, so once he gets soused he’s ready to believe anything.
Adina has suddenly yielded to Belcore’s charms and agrees to marry him. Belcore has also gotten Nemorino out of the way by getting him to join the army. At the wedding party he drowns his sorrows in Elixir, but Adina gets cold feet at the altar and postpones the wedding with Belcore when she finds out the lengths Nemorino is going through to win her.
Director Lawless keeps much of the gear-grinding plot devices in forward drive, the chorus picking up a lot of slack with background stage business to enliven some of the thinner mise-en-scenes. And along the way, there are fine performances, starting with soprano Sarah Sanford is a wry and charming Adina in a radiant performance with technical clarity and complete vocal confidence. Sanford, alum of the Curtis Institute, has already distinguished herself in several supporting roles the past two years at Opera Philadelphia and here delivers a breakout lead performance.
Baritone Craig Verm as Belcore, with what they would have termed matinee idol looks in the 40s, despite his macho behavior, offers nothing boorish about his prowess as a steeled baritone. Kevin Burdette is a physical comic (this side of Ed Norton-esque) as Dulcamara and is just as agile vaulting rich tones through Donizetti’s basso-buffa roulades. Soprano Katrina Thurman as Gianetta, Adina’s bff, has great vocal chemistry with Sanford and even more impressively lead Act II duet with the chorus.
Dmitri Pittas is the clunky and valiant Nemorino, a bit underpowered on Elixir’s knockout aria “Una Fortiva Lagrima,” but mostly at his lyrical tenor best in this part. Pittas also, impressively, stepped into the role a week before the opening when Christopher Tiesi had to drop out due to an illness.
By Act II, alas, no matter what era Elixir is reset in, its creaky extended plot devises have run out of musical steam. The pick-up is in the orchestra, with Rovaris’s gorgeously paced quieter passages and the full-throttle presto sections ala Rossini.
Also, Opera Philadelphia’s chorus, under director Elizabeth Braden, weighs in with exacting and rich sonority; also game for the witty choreography by Lawless as they gossip and tart up after they find out Nemorino has come into a fortune. Opera Philadelphia artistic director David Devan steals a moment motoring in on a scooter as the village priest, wagging his finger at the saucy chorus and taking a victory lap for an altogether intoxicating opera season.