If the Italian comic opera had not been produced 33 years before the Teutonic tragedy, there might be a temptation to think of Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" as a parody of "Tristan und Isolde," with the addition of a lot of catchy tunes, a spectacular basso buffo role and a happy ending.
Whatever their other affinities, the two operas have been produced by The Washington Opera in successive season, and the result (now that "Elisir" is on display at the Terrace Theater) can be chalked up as a clear victory for Italy over Germany. "Tristan" may or may not be a greater work of art; "Elisir," as the two works are presented by this company, is enormously more fun and (whisper it), more worth the investment of an evening.
Only one tune from the opera (the tenor's "Una Furtiva Lagrima") has found its way to the classical top-40, but it is merely the highlight of an unending stream of luscious melody which can hold an audience for hours simply by being well sung. The plot is as silly and contrived as anything that has ever played on Broadway (where Donizetti would certainly have made a killing if he were alive today), but in this production its silly parts are never overdone -- except where they should be overdone, as in the role of Dr. Dulcamara, snake-oil salesman extraordinaire who takes away the last lira of poor, dumb peasant boy Nemorino as payment for the love philter which will win him the hand of the fair but haughty Adina.
Dulcamara's role is in the enormously capable hands of Gimi Beni, and it is done about as well as it can be, extracting the full comic effect from every syllable. His tenor counterpart, Tonio di Paolo, shows comic gifts and sheer acting ability that one cannot take for granted in tenors. He also has a voice like spun gold, though on opening night he showed slight insecurity in the worst of all possible places, the opening phrase of "Una Furtiva Lagrima" (which was otherwise beautifully done). Romantic interest is provided by soprano Marianna Christos, whose makeup and costume make her look like one of the elaborate dolls of the early 19th century. Her voice was usually beautiful though sometimes uneven on opening night. Secondary roles are capably filled by Allan Glassman as Sergeant Belcore and Judith Borden as the villager who becomes his wife.
For the next two weeks, "Elisir" will be alternating in the Terrace with "The Rake's Progress" -- two operas in which the tenor suddenly finds himself courted intensively by all the women of the chorus after suddenly inheriting a fortune. Whether or not there is some kind of thematic planning at work here, the two operas contrast and complement one another splendidly. "Elisir" will certainly appeal to a larger audience, but I recommend both.
L'ELISIR D'AMORE -- At the Terrace Theater through December 25.