Be warned, please: The Santa Fe Opera’s charming, warm-hearted new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love is liable to give you a bad case of those morning-after-the-opera, just-can’t-get-those-tunes-out-of-my-head hangovers. Alka-Seltzer won’t help, so let the inner melodies play. They’re pretty terrific, as if you didn’t know, and neither Donizetti nor his quack creation, the cure-all Doctor Dulcamara, will object.
Much of the credit for this happy state of things belongs to Corrado Rovaris, who conducted a gleaming Simon Boccanegra here in 2004 and, two years ago, a solid La bohème. His fleet account of Donizetti’s score skips cheerfully along. Rovaris and the deft SFO orchestra deliver an idiomatic, nicely inflected reading that brims with affection for Donizetti’s delight-making work. Perhaps the fact that both Rovaris and the composer share Bergamo, Italy as their birthplace boosts this amiable relationship.
Elixir has been too long a stranger to the SFO. Its only other outing here was in that annus mirabilis, 1968, the season after a disastrous fire destroyed the company’s first house. The SFO rebounded with a new house, now replaced by the present theater, and an ambitious repertory that included Donizetti’s comic opera in a pretty standard production: happy 19th century peasants galore, plus a Dulcamara rising grandly from the orchestra pit atop the company’s nifty new elevator.
Not this time around, though. Director Stephen Lawless makes his SFO debut with an Elixir set in a post-war, ’50s/’60s Italian village. Just don’t expect any gritty, Bitter Rice-style Italian neo-realism. This is a comedy, after all, and updating the setting by more than a century just punches up the action.
Consciously or not, Lawless seems to be following Laurent Pelly’s ebullient updating of Elixir to roughly the same time period, a notion that wowed audiences, me included, at the Opéra National de Paris a couple of years ago. That production, featuring colossal hay-bales, a threshing machine and a sparky fox terrier, couldn’t transfer to the SFO, according to Pelly.
Comparisons aside, Lawless converts Sergeant Belcore into a testosterone-soaked US Army officer commanding an outfit of slouching losers. Nemorino is a grimy, plus-sized doofus, now an auto mechanic. His scornful beloved, Adina, swans around in a pair of glamour-puss shades, while the chorus girls, in a bevy of post-war print dresses, show plenty of leg.
The true test of any production’s success, naturally, lies with its singers and, for the most part, this Elixir fares very well. Dulcamara, juicily embodied by Thomas Hammons, becomes a sleazy, pin-striped grifter, deeply down on his luck. Patrick Carfizzi struts about with obnoxious panache as Belcore, though he needn’t bellow quite so much. This is bel canto opera, after all, as the show’s two principals ably demonstrate.
Jennifer Black, a former apprentice and the Mimi of two years ago, exhibits creamy tone and graceful legato phrasing as the fickle Adina. She’s a pert actress as well, who knows perfectly well that she’s healthy, wealthy and unwise. Dimitri Pittas, also a former apprentice and the Rodolfo two years back, bounces about the stage with ample comic energy. After a slightly edgy start, he warmed handsomely into the role, sweet-voiced and confident. His really big aria, “Una furtiva lagrima,” has been a tenor showstopper since 1832. It’s made or destroyed many a promising career.
Suffice it to say that Pittas made a meal, as the Brits put it, of the aria. Refined, sounding like an archetypical Italian tenor but without the sob, he nailed every nuance, sailed over every trap the aria provides for ever-emoting and flashy technical trickiness. Pittas’ delivery radiated honesty and truthfulness (just like Nemorino) and subtlety and skill (absolutely unlike Nemorino).
For a lingering, touching moment, Pittas, with Rovaris’ fine support, showed that Donizetti’s commedia is much more than a collection of caricatures. You could feel its heart beating strongly, alive with warmth and compassion.
The Elixer of Love
9 pm Wednesday, July 15
Through Aug. 28
The Santa Fe Opera