The Fort Worth Opera’s production of Donizetti’s Elixir of Love is funny. Really funny. Not to mention clever and witty, like Mel Brooks-meets-Woody Allen, by way of The Music Man.
Conceived by the Denver Opera's James Robinson and directed by Jennifer Nicoll (it's a co-production with Denver and the San Francisco Opera, among others), this staging moves the story from small-town Italy to small-town America. circa 1910. Like a great production of The Music Man, this Elixir is delightful from beginning to end.
The audience is greeted by a large curtain with a painting of a rural scene à la folk artist Grandma Moses. That curtain rises on a town square dominated by a white gazebo, which looks like it might have been designed for a bigger stage than Bass Hall. The wings are created by flats that also echo Grandma Moses' Americana.
This theme is consistently carried out in every detail. Our lovesick doofus of a hero, Nemorino, arrives in a vintage ice cream truck. The traveling snake oil salesman, "Doctor" Dulcamara, arrives on a World War I-era motorcycle with a sidecar. The pompous Belcore is an U.S. Army recruiter out beating the bushes for bodies. Adina, the object of Nemorino’s hopeless adoration, is a book vendor (an obvious hat-tip to Music Man's Marian the Librarian).
Nicoll has packed the production with clever bits of stage business. There is a tremendous amount of comic detail in every performance, ranging from the smallest glance to outright pratfalls.
Soprano Ava Pine is terrific as Adina, torn between her affection for Nemorino and interest in Belcore. She is a favorite of local audiences from her Dallas appearances as Adele in Die Fledermaus and Elvira in The Italian Girl in Algiers. Pine is completely at home in this repertoire, and her clear soprano easily negotiates Donizetti's demands.
Michael Fabiano channels actor Jim Carrey, whom he resembles, as he makes the character of Nemorino come to life. No comic opera stereotype, Fabiano is completely believable as the guy who always puts the wrong foot forward. Vocally, he is a remarkably fresh tenor with a big Italian sound and a top that is, thankfully, not over-hooked. He was the grand prize winner in the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and it's easy to see why. Since Elixir rests on his shoulders, it's not really accurate to say that he steals the show. But he does.
Baritone Christopher Boldus is hysterical as Belcore, the army officer whose self-importance is only exceeded by his grandiose self-esteem. Bass Rod Nelman, in the scenery-chewing role of Dulcamara, tries valiantly to steal the show from Fabiano, but it's to no avail. As with most buffo basses he oversings, with everything at a forte and louder dynamic. However, unlike most buffo basses, he has a virile and nicely focused voice. It is little wonder that his list of roles includes something other than comic parts, such as the villainous Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca.
Courtney Ross makes the most of the secondary role of Gianetta. She has the voice and stage presence to move up to major roles in short order.
Chorus Master Stephen Dubberly has a lot more to do in Elixir than he did in Don Giovanni, and the chorus responds. It is too bad that the gazebo doesn’t give them much room to move around. Nevertheless, they sing with gusto. There's no faceless crowd scene here. Each member of the chorus acts like a individual.
Martin Pakledinaz gets the credit for the clever chorus costumes and the equally effective ones for the leading characters. Lighting designer Paul Palazzo favors a general wash in an effort to create a sunny day, but it only serves to flatten out the stage. His second act evening lighting is more effective, but all of the principals could have used more light on their faces.
Scottish conductor Stewart Robertson leads a spirited performance and the orchestra sounds particularly full and resonant. On rare occasion at Sunday's matinee, he was slightly ahead of the stage, and overpowered the singers a few times. Most of the performance, though, was clean and detailed. He was always on top of the text. His mastery of Donizetti’s style was evident from the first note.
This Elixir is a delightful confection, with first-class singers in an innovative and laugh-out-loud production.
Who couldn't use a swig of that?
►The festival continues with Mozart's Don Giovanni (2 p.m. May 30, 8 p.m. June 4) and the world premiere of Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls (8 p.m. May 29 and 2 p.m. June 6).