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Opera Phila’s ‘Elixir’: Just What the Doctor Ordered

Operatoonity.com review: The Elixir of Love presented by Opera Philadelphia
Composer: Gaetano Donizetti with text by Felice Romani
Live performance: Sunday, May 8, 2016
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
4-stars

 

Opera Philadelphia closed its mainstage season with the potboiler The Elixir of Love. The show was rollocking good fun, and, a lot like the last professional Elixir I saw at New York City Opera in 2009, the production ushered a rising star into the opera firmament. In 2009, that star of the NYCO show was David Lomeli as the lovestruck Nemorino. In Opera Phila’s version, the luminous soprano Sarah Shafer, a Curtis Institute of Music graduate from State College, Pennsylvania, ensconced herself as a talent to remember:

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Sarah Shafer as the petulant, flirty Adina was a standout in Opera Phila’s springtime show. Photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

In this version, Adina was a country schoolteacher in the 1940s after WWII, who opens the show by telling pupils and villagers all about Isolde falling for Tristan after he drinks the magic potion in the classic myth. Had she been asked to portray Adina as a fishwife, GI Jane, or a blood-soaked zombie, nothing could have diminished her impact on this production. The audience hung on Shafer’s every note, from her first appearance in Act I until her Act II aria “Prendi per me sei libero…,” a glorious version, easily sustaining the legato passages, and effortlessly reaching her top notes with the clarity and sweetness of a silver bell. She is a preeminent lyric soprano and poised for even greater roles and stages.

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Tenor Dimitris Pittas sang the role of Nemorino

As the lovestruck Nemorino, New York tenor Dimitris Pittas showed off his stellar comic timing. He was a lovable, empathetic schlub for most of the show, which is most of what is required of the role. According to a press release dated April 21, Pittas stepped into the role only a week before the show opened because the previous tenor was stricken ill. Carrying the lead role on such short notice deserves recognition. However, this reviewer can only critique the show she saw. Pittas was handed the aria of a lifetime in “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” which was a fine vocal showcase for him but not the showstopper I had hoped for. Pittas absolutely did a serviceable job and after his noteable performance in Opera Phila’s Don Carlo, I hope to see him again soon, perhaps in the 2016-17 season.

Baritone Craig Verm as Belcore

Baritone Craig Verm as Belcore

If Donizetti handed Nemorino the aria of a lifetime, then he bestows the comic role of a lifetime on the opera singer who portrays Sergeant Belcore. Belcore is an over-the-top character. To perform the role with too much swagger is probably impossible. While baritone Craig Verm was amusing and well caricatured, I was *selfishly* hoping for a bigger overall performance to contrast with Nemorino’s ingrained schlubiness, like Brutus to Wimpy. Verm sang the role well and cut a handsome figure. Coming into the show, I came down with a bit of a fever, however, a fever for some beloved Elixirs of years gone by. The only prescription would have been more swagger from Belcore.

Kevin Burdette as Doctor Dulcamara

Kevin Burdette as Doctor Dulcamara

One of my favorite Phila Opera regulars is Kevin Burdette. I have seen him excel in a range of parts. He can be menacing (Dark Sisters) and he can also be knee-slappingly funny (The Barber of Seville). Lately he has been handed several funnyman roles in Opera Phila productions and never disappoints. His characterization while singing contrapuntal patter passages was praiseworthy. Burdette won’t sacrifice one bit of his character to achieve operatic heights and this reviewer deeply appreciates his total immersion into character.

The controlling concept–an Italian countryside tale post-WWII–lent itself to some clever set devices, including the quaint billboard on which numerous images revolved. Kudos to all the behind-the-scenes talent, all of whom were Opera Phila newcomers, who made this a successful show–Director Stephen Lawless, Set Designer & Costumer Ashley Martin-Davis, and Lighting Designer Pat Collins.

In the background is the colorful period billboard promoting olive oil

In the background is the colorful, period billboard promoting olive oil

It seems like the orchestra and chorus always get mentioned in the last portion of my reviews. In the scoring of Elixir, Donizetti himself made his orchestra serve the singers rather than the other way around. In the production notes, conductor Corrado Rovaris says he sought to draw out all the emotional colors in this opera, including melancholy, which he readily accomplished. I have come to appreciate that Rovaris can conduct anything with aplomb and surrounds himself with talented, versatile musicians, coaxing many diverse sounds and styles from them, time and time again.

Overall, this was another winning production from a winning company featuring some new backstage blood and capitalizing on the talents of opera performers in Opera Phila’s growing stable of first-rate performers. I look forward to Opera Phila’s enterprising 2016-17 season, and hope to have the privilege to bring you more Operatoonity.com reviews next year.

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