Before the modern pharmaceutical industry provided a pill to conquer every human problem and malady, patent medicines extravagantly promised cures of all kinds. And before these commercially marketed patent medicines, itinerant quacks peddled “love potions” and other purportedly medicinal concoctions.
Saturday (Feb. 15) at San Diego Civic Theatre, San Diego Opera opened its production of Gaetano Donizetti’s 1832 The Elixir of Love, an operatic puff pastry that enshrines this ethically dubious tradition in an exuberant opera buffa that retains a secure niche in any major company’s repertory. I am happy to report that company General and Artistic Director Ian Campbell’s stellar cast provides a musical feast that does justice to Donizetti’s mellifluous score and has almost too much fun sprinting through its predictable plot contortions.
Of course the hapless tenor Nemorino ends up winning over the soprano Adina, the local girl of his dreams, and the rakish baritone army officer Sergeant Belcore, who intends to sweep Adina off her feet and marry her, is foiled and sent back to lead his motley soldiers.
And Nemorino is the only cast member on stage who does not know that the “love potion” for which he had paid so dearly to make Adina fall for him is only a half-empty bottle of cheap wine.
Making her San Diego Opera and North American debut inthe role of Adina, Moldovan soprano Tatiana Lisnic established her coloratura prowess from her first aria and electrified the stage each time she sang. Her light, supple voice traversed her role’s coloratura challenges with apparent ease, yet in more cantabile arias, her vibrant, gleaming legato line easily carried to the remote corners of the vast hall. Attuned to bel canto conventions, she would gracefully land on a high note and subtly float it to a shimmering pianissimo. With her ample vocal and dramatic skills, this young soprano should be singing at the Met very soon!
Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti as Nemorino, also making a local debut, may have more of a track record in Europe and North America that Lisnic, but he displayed little of her vocal nuance. A solid lyric tenor with a mild Italianate ping, Filianoti’s singing was like a porch light—either on or off and nothing in between, although his comic timing and varied repertory of facial expressions enlivened his character when his singing did not.
As Sergeant Belcore, American baritone Malcolm MacKenzie offered more vocal muscle than this bel canto role
requires, but the splendor of his instrument justifies such a mild indulgence. His ostentatious bravado took the sergeant’s self-confidence up several notches, but perhaps Director Stephen Lawless is responsible for this take on Belcore. A regular with the company for the last six seasons, MacKenzie has proved a treasure in every musical style he undertakes. Kevin Burdette, an unusually suave, agile bass, gave the elixir salesman Doctor Dulcamara a persuasive, even sympathetic spin. In the incidental role of Giannetta, soprano Stephanie Weiss acquitted herself honorably.
Lawless kept his cast at the front of the stage in constantly changing configurations that helped compensate for the static
plot, as did his smart pacing. A little less mugging from the singers, especially when they reacted to one another, would have made the drama less cartoonish, however. Johan Engels’ set effectively used tall, swinging latticed gates to separate indoor scenes from the outdoors, and the deep autumnal colors of both costumes and set aptly depicted the harvest season of this opera’s quaint rural setting. Joan Sullivan-Genthe’s lighting contrasted brilliant daylight for most of the opera, with a dusky, crepuscular evening for the final scene.
Karen Kamensek, an American conductor who has been successful in Europe, led the orchestra with a firm hand and coaxed from her players a torrent of exquisite woodwind solos. Chorus Director Charles F. Prestinari again worked his magic turning his charges into disciplined, sweet-voiced peasants adept at manual labor.