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Santa Fe Opera’s “The Elixir of Love,” opened Saturday with a musical comedy that immediately put everything in perspective.
Let it rain. Let it hail. Let the bottom fall out. Somewhere the clouds have parted and the sun is slanting across a field of flowers. There is a road to a better future. Love has won again.
In a small Italian village, just after the end of World War II, Nemorino, a car mechanic loves Adina, a haughty, headstrong heiress who is so glamorous that everybody loves her and wants to hang out, hit on her or get married – tomorrow, if not today.
Surrounded by olive-orchard workers, friends and neighbors in the opening scene, she tells a mythical story of a magic concoction that helped a famous knight win the heart of a cruel maid.
Nemorino the innocent lummox across the piazza hears her anecdote and takes the story literally as his salvation. Romantic foolishness, but something less than buffoonery, ensues.
Composer Gaetano Donizetti, with talent to burn, burned a bunch of it writing the score for this opera. He knocked “Elixir” out in eight days, according to opera lore. Known for his quickness and inventiveness, he must have poured some of his best fizz off the top.
The original opera opened May 12, 1832 and had a Basque setting. Not every attempt to fiddle with the place and period works, but this one offers a great way of telling the story.
Nemorino’s flat-footed quest for the seemingly unattainable Adina is complicated by the appearance of a jeep full of liberators from the U.S. Army.
Their entrance, introducing the rival suitor Sergeant Belcore, incidentally gives the company an opening for a little American flag-waving scene that drew a knowing cheer for the Fourth of July opening night.
But it is the appearance of the snake-oil huckster, Dr. Dulcamara that provides the elixir.
And so what if it is mere wine with a phony label, it gets the job done and then some.
Played by Thomas Hammons an established veteran called in to replace John Del Carlo, surely the character could not have been better expressed. His neckless, reptilian circumspection and cocky stances were perfect.
All four principals, including Hammons were former apprentices of the Santa Fe Opera, returning after successes abroad.
The great thing was to have these apprentices on stage together and supported by such brilliant technical artists, the Conductor Corrado Rovaris, the Director Stephen Lawless, the Scenic and Costume Designer, Martin Davis and the Lighting Director, Pat Collins.
The Santa Fe Opera Production Director, Paul Horpendahl, who grew up in Los Alamos, made a comical cameo entrance on a Vespa motor scooter, in the role of the priest.
The billboard looming over the set offered a powerful organizing concept, not just for consumer information and subliminal emotions, but also for visual perspective and stagecraft. It was a terrific way to tell the story and probably even helped project the sound.
Dmitri Pitas, who played Nemorino, is already listed as a potential superstar. He brings the role of Tamino in the “Magic Flute” at the Metropolitan Opera this season and more to the point, his experience from his outing as Nemorino. His body language as the goofy lummox was as equal to the task of expressing character, as his Bel Canto voice was to revealing an inner soul.
Jennifer Black as Adina was winsome, captivating and convincing. Her voice and vocal abilities have always been impressive and now she has developed as an actor. Patrick Carfizzi’s version of the alien Sergeant Belcore was abrasively disturbing for winding up the plot. He struggled with his acting during his three years as an apprentice, but he had the swagger and impulsiveness of the American officer down, especially impressive because it is not his personality.
In the next generation of apprentices, Rachel Schutz as Giannetta, had a magnetic presence as the enterprising country girl who turns into a gold-digger when Nemorino’s fortunes change.
This fresh production of such an infectious and effervescent opera, has found its perfect time to shine.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Carl Newton, now in his 14th year as a docent at the Santa Fe Opera, contributed a number of helpful insights to this review.