Smalltown Canada setting
Donizetti’s rustic melodramma giocoso (comic opera) The Elixir of Love returned to the Canadian Opera Company on October 11 for the first time since 1999, in a new-to-Toronto production by American director James Robinson. The action has been subtly ‘updated’ to the WWI period, taking place in Anytown, Canada (substitute Niagara-on-the-Lake for example) on a unit band shell set decorated with the former Canadian flag, Union Jack-coloured bunting, ‘Britain needs YOU’ posters and the like. Costumes are all very small town, idealised, middle America and wouldn’t be out of place in a production of The Music Man.
Its traditionalism was a little jarring in the context of many recent, more probing, concept-driven COC productions—Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni and Guth’s The Marriage of Figaro come to mind. With the chorus positioned mostly statically on the band shell and principals interacting in a pleasant but predictable manner, it was clear Robinson did not intend to challenge his material, nor the audience in any undue fashion.
This Elixir cast delivers!
Donizetti’s score is a delicious mixture of warm sentiment and outright buffoonery and for the most part, this cast delivered on both fronts. The three leads who form the love triangle—bumpkin Nemorino (tenor Andrew Haji; here, an ice cream vendor); ingénue Adina (soprano Simone Osborne; a.k.a. Marion the librarian) and barihunk Belcore (baritone Gordon Bintner; a preening army officer)—are all appropriately young, attractive performers. The trick however, is that Donizetti gives them deceptively difficult music to sing and all three were here making their role debuts.
Haji sang sweetly throughout in beautifully modulated if somewhat monochromatic tone. His rendition of the uber-famous tenor party piece, “Una furtiva lagrima” was the evening’s musical highlight. His familiarity with the aria allowed him to utilise stylistically appropriate rubato, expanding and contracting the tempo to create an emotionally rich portrait of a man who realises his longed for Adina might actually love him. As Haji becomes more familiar with the rest of the role, he will undoubtedly discover other opportunities for this kind of expressive ‘give and take’. The brimmed cap that hid his face through most of Act I hindered his expression and overall, he could have physicalized his singing and acting more demonstratively.
Osborne used her glinting, bright tone to wonderful effect throughout this lengthy, challenging role. Possessing a lighter, lyric soprano, she had little difficult projecting Adina’s long-lined phrases and fast-moving coloratura into the large auditorium doing so with considerable sensitivity and artistry. Her portrayal was winning, avoiding the slightly hoydenish Adina of convention. If in the end her character didn’t quite break free of the ingénue stereotype, she wasn’t helped much by Robinson’s ‘don’t disturb’ brand of direction.
Bintner’s Belcore was spot-on in his deployment of robust, well-projected, gorgeous vocalism at the service of appropriately pompous, self-absorbed characterization. The best example of this was in an Act II duet where Bintner’s physical comedy hilariously underlined his repeated offers of “venti scudi” as an enticement to Haji’s Nemorino to join the army. This scene demonstrated what was perhaps lacking elsewhere—that hard-to-define, magic amalgam of music/acting/gesture that elicits spontaneous belly laughs from the audience.
As Dr. Dulcamara, dubious vendor of love potions that turn out to be little more than cheap Bordeaux, veteran British bass Andrew Shore certainly displayed his mastery of the role’s comic shtick, but his big entrance aria revealed him almost voiceless from the start. He had difficultly summoning up enough tone to project over the orchestra, often resorting to a quasi-falsetto to save himself in his upper range. His fast-paced patter singing was more successful and dispatched with expert comic timing.
COC Ensemble soprano Lauren Eberwein was an enchanting Giannetta, her luscious, rich tone carrying beautifully over the choral ensemble that opens the opera. Her Act II scene with the female chorus when each ‘suddenly’ realises Nemorino is husband potential due to his recently inheriting a fortune, was a musical and comedic highlight.
The internationally busy Canadian conductor Yves Abel made a belated COC debut eliciting lovely sounds from the COC Orchestra. There were several moments of poor ensemble between the stage and the pit however, mostly in concerted sections involving soloists and chorus. This mainly happened when Abel was pushing forward while onstage forces apparently resisted, a discrepancy that will no doubt be remedied as the production settles into its 8-performance run.
First time opera?
As opera companies continue to struggle with ticket sales and introducing new audiences to the art form, it’s intriguing to reflect on which of the COC’s two 17/18 season opening productions might prove the best for an opera newbie. Conventional wisdom would choose this Elixir with its catchy melodies and an eye-pleasing production. However, given the stellar performances and intelligent staging of the company’s other fall offering, Strauss’s Arabella, one might be tempted to reverse that judgement. Sometimes, so-called ‘second-string’ can trump a ‘popular classic’ given the right set of circumstances.