‘L’elisir d’amore’: Italian opera full of comic surprises

Photo by Max Kraus

By JIM LOWE
THE LOWE DOWN

The Opera Company of Middlebury is entering its 15th season this weekend with Gaetano Donizetti’s comedy, “L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love),” the fizzy romantic comedy about a con artist who convinces a town that his strange concoction can cure any ill. It can even make other people fall in love with you.

“We have kind of a knack for comedy here. We love it,” explains Doug Anderson, OCM’s artistic director, who is stage directing. “My thing about comic opera is I have a rather radical notion — it has to be REALLY funny.”

Something about operas by Donizetti and Rossini makes people laugh.

“Maybe it’s their Italian heritage, maybe it’s all the wine they drank, I don’t know what — but they knew how to make people laugh. And not just the storyline, the music is funny,” Anderson said recently by phone.

“You don’t have to know the language to understand this music,” he said. “It is effervescent, it is delightful, it takes all kinds of twists and turns. Sometimes the tempo is so fast you can hardly believe it. The whole package seems to me to be absolutely delightful, truly comic — and I really want to get my hands on it.”

Opera Company of Middlebury will present “L’elisir d’amore,” in a semi-staged concert version with orchestra, and sung in the original Italian with English supertitles, at 7:30 p.m. tonight and Friday, and 2 p.m. Saturday at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater.

Taken from Eugène Scribe’s story, Felice Romani’s libretto for the 1832 opera tells of the poor peasant Nemerino and his unrequited love for the wealthy Adina. The traveling quack doctor Dulcamara sells Nemerino a “magic elixir,” alcohol actually. But Nemerino thinks it’s working — bringing about a whole series of events that remind Anderson of screwball comedies.

“Screwball movies moved fast, they just had a velocity that this music has, that this story has. He doesn’t mess around, he gets right to it — which I love,” Anderson said.

“And, of course, it has a romantic ending. It does have a rather sensitive and romantic story at the heart of it. And, of course, it creates one of the most famous arias of all time, ‘Una furtiva lagrima,’ as well as three lovely duets between the two.”

Anderson also finds more emotional complexity than in many opera comedies of the time.

“Especially Adina,” he said. “She has everything in town, she’s the richest woman in town. She owns everything, and yet she’s very unhappy. Obviously, there’s got to be a backstory here, as none of her relationships with men have gone well.

“There’s something very contemporary abut it — her inability to find someone that she can spend the end of her life with.”

Anderson also pointed out that “nemerino” means loser.

“It means the crummy, good-for-nothing fellow,” he said. “It’s something about his honesty and sincerity that finally wins her over. It’s an interesting story — there’s a lot for us to sink our teeth into here.”

Anderson’s idea of a concert version is much different than most. The orchestra and Middlebury College Chorus will be on stage, but that’s where the usual practice ends.

“We can’t keep our fingers off of anything,” he said. “This will be designed, and there will be sets and costumes.”

Anderson couldn’t abide the original setting in the French countryside, with that opening scene of the chorus lounging around under trees.

“Doing nothing, looking bored out of their minds — I’m just not interested in that,” he said.

For some reason, from the beginning, Anderson thought of Dulcamara as a bartender.

“These are people who make elixirs for us that are supposed to enliven us, give us enjoyment, change our lives, or fall in love,” he said.

From there, Anderson took his inspiration from the 1980 Stanley Kubrick horror film, “The Shining,” set in an isolated hotel in the Colorado Rockies with a bar that is lit from below.

“We’re going to have a bar that lights up that way for Dulcamara. It was a very strong image, and I started working towards a Gatsby-esque 1920s version of this,” Anderson said.

“It’ll add another layer of fun and style to the piece. People will be beautifully costumed by my wife Debbie. My little team is cooking up a beautiful set for this bar — and there’ll be a lot of martini glasses and shakers.”

All of the singers in leading roles have sung with the company before. Tenor Joshua Collier plays the lovesick Nemerino, having performed in “Turandot” and last year’s “Il Trittico.” He’ll play opposite soprano Bevin Hill, who will be making her record sixth appearance here. Rounding out the cast are Kian Freitas (Dulcamara), Christopher Holmes (Belcore) and Rachel Hall (Giannetta).

Opera Company of Middlebury productions of traditional operas are always full of nontraditional surprises. As Anderson said, “We’re playing it straight — but not always.”

Opera Company of Middlebury

The Opera Company of Middlebury presents Donizetti’s comedy, “L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love),” in a staged concert version, at 7:30 p.m. tonight and Friday, Oct. 12 and 13, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. Tickets are $45-$60; call 802-382-9222, or go online to www.towhalltheater.org.