When people think of opera – especially people who don’t much go to the opera – they imagine one of two things: Either a stout lady in a horned helmet belting it out in German, or a luscious soprano singing luscious Italian melodies about painfully luscious love and heartbreak.
Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love,” which Eugene Opera presented as its season opener at the Hult Center on New Year’s Eve and will perform once more on Sunday afternoon, is a frothy version of one of the latter: Sweetly Italian romantic comedy with music and harmony to thrill the heart.
To cut to the chase, this is an opera you want to go see – especially if you’re an opera beginner. “Elixir” is a delicious rom-com, offering a simple, straightforward story line that’s easy to follow. Yes, of course, it’s all in Italian, but there are English supertitles projected above the action to help you keep up.
The Eugene Opera production is skillful and moving throughout, with charming singers, all of whom have crack credentials (including stints at the Metropolitcan Opera for Marco Nistico, who sings the happily sleazy Dr. Dulcamara) and smooth voices.
The story, as often distilled by EO’s general director Mark Beudert, is this: “Class nerd beats out quarterback to win hand of prom queen with help from the Wizard of Oz.”
The class nerd, in this analysis, is the shy, awkward Nemorino – the name practically translates to “a little nobody” – who is sung gently here by Chad Johnson. Nemorino is wild about the rich, vivacious and fickle Adina, but can’t seem to make romantic headway compared to the swaggeringly handsome sergeant Belcore (Harry Baechtel).
Into this triangle arrives Dr. Dulcamara – by hot-air balloon, no less – who is peddling all manner of quack remedies guaranteed to take effect tomorrow, or when he’s already left town. Nemorino spends his last money on a bottle of magic elixir, guaranteed to bring about romance, and which is, of course, nothing but cheap wine.
Dulcamara is the catalyst of this story. His character will pop up more than a century later on Broadway in the form of Harold Hill from “The Music Man.” Both are charming shysters who prey on people’s deepest hopes and fancies, selling dreams to the desperate. Nistico does a commanding job with this entrancing role.
Donizetti’s music is rich and perfect, ranging from lyrical and moody to a fast-paced comic rhythm that almost feels like Gilbert & Sullivan.
Andrew Bisantz is back as music director and conductor; Patrick Hansen is stage director and choreographer. The show is done in traditional costume and on a traditional set, which you’ve probably seen before if you’re a Eugene Opera regular.
The best surprise of the evening came not during the music but from Beudert’s curtain speech before the show. The opera, which has more than once been on financial life support and has done just two productions a year recently, is adding two smaller shows to its calendar next season.
So in 2015-16, the opera plans to perform “Eugene Onegin,” with Anton Belov as Onegin, and “Lucia di Lammermoor,” with Leah Partridge (Violetta in EO’s “La Traviata”) as Lucia, on the big Silva Concert Hall stage. But it is also hoping to bring two smaller productions – Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” and Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” – to the Soreng Theater next door. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, the company is looking ahead to its second production of the current season. The opera will perform Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” on March 13 and 15.
The Elixir of Love
Hult Center Silva Concert Hall
2:30 p.m. Sunday, January 4