Palm Beach Opera deftly mixes comedy and soaring vocalism in Donizetti’s “Elixir”

By David Fleshler

Belcore (Alexey Lavrov) and Nemorino (Mario Chang) battle for the hand of Adina (Andriana Chuchman) in Palm Beach Opera’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore.

Few art forms have a shorter shelf live than comedy. But if the humor of Donizetti’s 1831 classic L’elisir d’amore can seem dated, there are timeless elements to the work.

Palm Beach Opera’s effective production focused on the soaring bel canto lines of melody and the human drama within the music. The success of Friday night’s performance at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach rested largely on the excellent singing. 

Donizetti was a master of the operatic ensemble, witness the popularity of the Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor, which has been endlessly performed, rearranged and parodied. And throughout Friday’s performance, the duets, trios and other ensemble numbers were a pleasure to hear, as the fine singers blended together with the well-drilled orchestra under chief conductor David Stern.

As Nemorino, the Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang, brought a gleaming voice and deep level of expression to the role of a peasant who turns in desperation to a quack love potion to win the woman of his dreams.

From the opening aria, in which he pined for a woman he considered far above his station, he displayed a smooth legato, heartfelt expression and Italianate phrasing. Over the course of the opera, while never losing his rough country manner, he embodied a journey from hopeless yearning to delirious overconfidence to joy at winning the love of his life.

Throughout the ensemble numbers, his golden voice stood out—as in the soaring singing of his love above the annoying jabbering of the sergeant trying to persuade him to enlist in the army. In “Una furtiva lagrima”—the opera’s most celebrated aria—he began softly, holding back, then allowed his voice to bloom into the music, delivering throbbing, long high notes in brilliant tone, in a performance that drew sustained cheers and applause.

As Adina, the object of his affections, the Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman was a vivacious stage presence, with a creamy voice that had the agility to negotiate Donizetti’s rapid notes. Her subtle acting made a nice contrast to the more rough-and-ready style Chang brought to Nemorino. Coolly superior at first, turning the pages of a book as he pined for her, she became irritated (and then irritated at her own irritation), as this pest of a suitor seemed to lose interest, then slumped in despondency at the feigned indifference of a man she now realized she loved. In her final aria, she expressed her love for Nemorino with joyfully over-the-top coloratura.

If some of the work’s comedy seems dated, other comedic elements  were timeless. As the quack medicine salesman Dulcamara—19th century Italy’s answer to the internet hustlers peddling diet pills and wrinkle creams—the South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana clearly relished his role. Eyebrows raised in mock wonder, his voice booming through the hall, he rattled off the ills his potions could cure for only three lire. A towering figure with a black walking stick, checked vest and gold watch-chain, he embodied the hustler who will always be with us, triumphing in the end from the apparent success of a love potion that was actually cheap Bordeaux.

Stage director Fenlon Lamb gave us some of the slapstick that’s inevitable with an opera of this type. But there were imaginative touches throughout, such as Nemorino putting his soldier’s cap and jacket on his wine barrel as he launched into “Una furtiva lagrima,” giving the aria a pathos comparable to Pagliacci putting on his clown’s makeup. And Lamb kept the focus on the music, allowing to the principals to simply sing in their big moments, without filling up the stage with needless distractions.

The Russian baritone Alexey Lavrov sang the role of Belcore, the arrogant sergeant who appeared to think his stripes entitled him to Adina’s hand. If his voice lacked the stentorian force to go with his military rank, he delivered the self-important ornamentations with which Donizetti stuffed the role with verve and pomposity. His  waxed mustache and stiff manner—presenting a bouquet to Adina as if it were a good-conduct medal—made it easy to see Adina would soon break off that relationship.

In the role of Adina’s friend Giannetta, who passes on the gossip of Nemorino’s suddenly coming into money, the soprano Alexandra Razskazoff, displayed a rich, sweet-toned voice that seemed worthy of bigger roles.

The staging utilized handsome sets from New Orleans Opera that created a brick piazza, with a colonnade and vine-wrapped balcony.

The orchestra gave vibrant support to the singers without overwhelming them. Focused, buoyant string playing and jewel-like touches in brass and winds brought Donizetti’s fizzy score to life, while allowing the voices to shine. 

Particularly well done was the bassoon opening to Nemorino’s big aria, played with darkly expressive luster. There was crisp, lively and vigorous singing from the chorus who served as town peasants.

Palm Beach Opera’s performances of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Sat Feb 26, 2022
at 1:31 pm
No Comments