'Elisir': One Love Potion, Stirred Silly

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 3, 2006

Washington National Opera's revival of Gaetano Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore," which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, is a modest delight -- funny, unpretentious, filled with good tunes; well sung, conducted, and played. It attempts nothing that it cannot pull off, and it is a traditional staging that never overreaches (or, for that matter, even stretches very far). Such productions may not make opera history, but they will make a lot of people happy, which is a far from negligible accomplishment.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any spectator so hardhearted as to be able to resist the sustained jollity of the evening. The story is flat-out silly -- an operatic precursor to "Love Potion No. 9," if you like, or "Tristan und Isolde" turned into loopy farce -- and the music has a wonderfully offhand quality, as though it were thrown together by its composer in a month (which, as it happens, it was).

"Elisir," first performed in 1832, has none of the pretensions to the stature of Immortal Masterpiece that sap so many more serious operas from early-19th-century Italy. No, this is the work of a witty craftsman, unapologetically churning it out -- and, paradoxically, it is through this unassuming playfulness that it has won its own immortality.

Not surprisingly, the strongest singing came from Elizabeth Futral, in the role of Adina. She is a charming artist, one of the few coloratura sopranos who don't sound as though they would rather have been born birds. Instead of fluty twittering, she gave us spunk and spirit and a warmly engaging, fully human personality, all the while hitting the notes right in their center.

I don't find the voice of Paul Groves, who sang the role of Nemorino, an especially lustrous one: His sound is somewhat dull and becomes more than a little strained in the upper register. That said, he has much going for him -- a cultivated musicianship, stage presence, solid acting ability, and the mixture of intelligence, willpower and inner resources to forge a ringing "Una furtiva lagrima" that was on another level from most of his work.

Christina Martos was a fizzy, flirty and altogether delightful Giannetta. Marc Barrard blustered agreeably as the pompous Belcore, while the ursine baritone Steven Condy sang and acted the role of Dr. Dulcamara, the dispenser of the mysterious elixir of love, with just the right combination of oleaginous hustle and broad comedic vigor. Look up the term "snake oil salesman" in the dictionary and you might just find Condy's picture.

Emmanuel Villaume led the Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra with unfailing wit and lyricism, as though he were making up the score as he went along and much pleased with his creation. There were an abundance of embellishments, such as a smart and appropriate quote from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" played by the continuo pianist, who seemed absolutely unconcerned that "Elisir" was completed more than a quarter-century before "Tristan" shimmered to haunted life.

The sole discordant note of the evening came in a public statement from Stephen Lawless, who directed the premier production of this "Elisir" in 1997, but dissociated himself from the revival in a paragraph that really should be read to the accompaniment of a stamping foot: "Owing to changes that were made to my production after I left, I wish to state that I have not seen nor approved those changes and I cannot take full responsibility for the final staging of this revival."

Oh well. I liked this "Elisir" in 1997 and I like it even better now. I suspect it will play pretty well in 2015, too -- but don't blame Lawless if it does.

L'Elisir d'Amore will be repeated Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday and April 12, 15 and 17, with some variation in the cast members who sing Belcore and Dulcamara. Information: 202-295-2400 orhttp://www.dc-opera.org.

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