Houston — The Houston Grand Opera’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s delightful comic opera L'elisir d'amore (The Elixir of Love) is a refreshing take on one of the most frequently operas in the international repertoire (number 13 on Operabase list). And that is a remarkable achievement.
More often than not, such efforts contort the opera into an ill-fitting container—like the ugly stepsisters trying to cram their foot into the glass slipper. Even worse, its setting is so inappropriate that it becomes contrary to the composer’s intent. No such exaggeration happens in Daniel Slater’s clever production.
Slater moves the action to the 1950’s in a seaside resort. One palm tree in the background says “tropics” and Simon Mills’ lighting creates the feeling of a pleasant sunny day. Set designer Robert Innes Hopkins creates the Inn Adina and his outdoor-canopied café allows ample room center stage for all the action. The design is vaguely reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh ‘s “Cafe Terrace at Night.” Adina, of course, is not only the name of the Inn, but it is also the name of leading soprano part in the story. Instead of Adina being a wealthy landowner in a little Basque hamlet, as the libretto states, in this reimaging she owns this charming resort hotel.
As Adina, soprano Nicole Heaston shines. Her voice is more substantial than the usual coloratura, but she flashes through all of the virtuoso passages with ease. Further, Heaston gives the vocal acrobatics some meaning as opposed to the usual singing the passages like a vocal ease. Heaston is everything you could want in an Adina: young, beautiful, a talented stage presence, a great Bel Canto singer and a vocal powerhouse.
Like many others in the cast, she is a graduate of the HGO apprentice program—proof of the value of that program.
Nemorino, the poor lovesick bumbling villager who loves her is transformed into the waiter in the hotel’s café. This employer/employee relationship adds a new element to his hopeless situation.
American tenor Dimitri Pittas is excellent as Nemorino. Being a waiter in this update offers some challenges to his portrayal. He has to be clever enough to be a waiter (a very difficult job, by the way), and clueless enough to be the perfect mark for a huckster. (More about that later.) Vocally he is perfect for these Bel Canto roles. He has enough heft to deliver some impressive high notes but also has the flexibility to keep up with Adina’s vocals fireworks.
Adina tortures Nemorino by feigning indifference, which only inflames his all consuming love and adds a level frustration to his overwhelming and hopeless situation.
Besides, Adina has another suitor, the boisterous Belcore, played with braggadocio by bass-baritone Michael Sumuel. In this production, he is changed from a sergeant to a naval officer. He and this retinue arrive on a Vespa. They are all in dramatically white uniforms, making Nemorino, in his drab green waiter’s apron, feel even more inferior.
Here is a chance to heap some additional praise on Hopkins, who designed the set, and not surprisingly, the costumes as well. Actually, the Fabulous Fifties costumes are an important element of the stage picture. Adina, in particular, gets to wear some dynamite frocks from the high couture houses.
Back to poor dejected Nemorino. His sad state of affairs makes him a prefect mark for the aforementioned huckster Dr. Dulcamara. He is a phony-baloney con man who arrives in a hot air balloon, much like another counterfeit wizard, who used a similar conveyance to both arrive and leave Oz. Dulcamara is ballooning from village to village selling a magic elixir that he claims will cure any human ill. Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi is hysterical in this role and Slater gives him a wealth of shtick, of which he takes full advantage.
Nemorino asks him if he has a love potion. Of course he has a powerful one: L'elisir d'amore. It is just wine but the placebo effect is in full throttle. Nemorino gives him his last bit of money to buy it and he chugs the whole bottle at once.
Unknown to Nemorino and the other leads, but known to everyone else in the village, Nemorino’s rich uncle has just gone to his reward and left his fortune to Nemorino. He is rich, rich, rich. All of a sudden, all the girls surround Nemorino, like flies on picnic food.
Adina promises to marry Belcore to provoke a reaction from Nemorino and lots more comic shenanigans take place than belong in a review. But, in the end, as you might have guessed, everything works out.
Everything works out on stage as well. All of the action appears to be choreographed, so it is not surprising to see choreographer Tim Claydon listed as the associate director in the program. The staging is reminiscent of Darko Tresnjak’s Tony-winning direction in the hit musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. There is always something interesting going on behind the big story, but none of this detracts or upstages the main action.
British Conductor Jane Glover is a marvel, eliciting a fine performance from the HGO orchestra. Without any histrionics, she is always in control and on top of the text. Her reading of the score is exemplary of the Bel Canto tradition.
Seeing two productions in a row at the HGO demonstrated their remarkable range. From the light and airy sets for Elixir, we descended into the hand painted drops that marvelously created the appropriate dark, cramped and oppressive sets for Gounod’s Faust.