San Francisco Opera’s ’Elixir of Love’

Mix me an elixir, 101 in the shade

Who cannot love Donizetti? Especially at his wittiest and most playful: L’elisir d’amore, or Elixir of Love, as it is titled in San Francisco Opera’s current production. Imagine Donizetti and his librettist, Felice Romani, recasting the story of Tristan and Isolde, deciding, with roguish glee, to juxtapose that mythic story of frustrated desire and magical love to the tale of a mischievous village girl taunting her gullible and innocent bumpkin admirer. The impulse as it is realized in this charming vision continues to be irresistible, coupled as it is with Donizetti’s fizzy and melodically brilliant score.

San Francisco Opera makes much of the fact that the production is set in Napa Valley on the eve of World War I, but the setting is negligible. It could be any American town. The vaguely American Primitive depiction of a rural panorama painted on the downstage scrim and wings, with big fluffy trees, barns and cows, sun-filled fields and pale mauve shadows could be anywhere, if it weren’t for the ranks of grapevines painted in the foreground. And the bandstand that dominates center stage is likewise anywhere, if not any time. More crucial to the setting is the feeling of warmth and endless summer days.

Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas sings Nemorino, beautifully, with a humor and mild detachment that adds to his portrayal of the character as endlessly good-natured and slightly disconnected—he is the archetypal fairy tale’s youngest son, honest and simple, who despite his rivals’ better wits and ambition wins the princess. The princess—in this case, the fickle, somewhat conniving Adina—is sung by Albanian soprano Inva Mula, in her San Francisco debut. And what a debut! Her exquisite high notes string out like glittering beads on a thread of gold.

And top it off with an ice cream

Vargas easily mastered “Una furtiva lagrima”—a sink-or-swim aria—investing it with a sweetness and poignancy that moved beyond the usual bravura, and was more in keeping with the story’s emotional meaning. His first act duet with Adina was lovely, charmingly served up with directorial élan, as the two sang and shared one of Nemorino’s ice creams: Adina with insouciance, Nemorino with longing. Lots of mileage was gotten out ice cream during the course of the evening. At one point, Nemorino makes a sliced banana, ice cream and cheap Cabernet concoction out of his “elixir of love.”

Italian baritone Giorgio Caodura sang the unbearable Sargeant Belcore, easily shaping the swaggering character of Nemorino’s rival while maintaining vocal ease and grace of tone. Alessandro Corbelli sang Dr. Dulcamara, the quack who, by selling Nemorino a bogus love potion, sets the plot moving toward the innocent’s final conquest of the object of his love. His second act duet, “Quanto amore,” like most of the delicious duets in Donizetti’s confection, was a wonder of bel canto singing. And his amazement at his elixir’s success is one of the brilliant comic moments of this production.

The chorus, dressed variously as members of the community, from the minister to the farmer, was excellent in its effusive support of love’s convolutions. This chorus seems to get better and better.

—Jaime Robles

Originally published in the Piedmont Post