Opera review: ‘The Elixir of Love’ at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion


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With its forthcoming production of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle sucking up oxygen from a new season -- to say nothing of appropriating $32 million from a not-exactly bulging bank account -- Los Angeles Opera opened a new season Saturday night with seemly frugality. There was a red carpet to accommodate the minority who still don tuxedos and dressy gowns for such events, but, in acknowledgment of general hard times, Hollywood ostentation was properly moth-balled.

Rather than erect an expensively decorated party tent in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the company made do by renting some white open-air living room furniture for donors and socialites who arrived early, and it fed them later in the lobby.


The opera was modest, as well. Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” was revived in a production from 1996, when the comic work was still known by its Italian title “L’Elisir d’Amore.” In fact, the evening proved even more modest than had been anticipated, the stage being populated by a young and mostly unfamiliar – but consistently handsome and lively -- cast, some singing their roles for the first time.

The one extravagance was to have been more stellar singers, beginning with the hugely popular tenor Rolando Villazón who would be paired with the U.S. debut of a hot young soprano from the Republic of Georgia, Nino Machaidze, as Donizetti’s lovers – the singers wowed Salzburg last summer in Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” (which in now out on a thrilling DVD). The famed Italian bass, Ruggero Raimondi was also to make his company debut.

Vocal cord surgery for Villazón and a torn tendon for Raimondi changed that. When the curtain went up Saturday, the only well-known singer was American baritone Nathan Gunn as the swaggering Sergeant Belcore, who almost always gets the girl, the least important of the main roles.

Still, Machaidze lived up to her reputation and if this revival gets full houses, it will surely be because of her. This was her first Adina, the lovely aristocrat loved by Nemorino, a country bumpkin tenor. Machaidze has a winning smile and can handle comic business, but her voice, while agile, is dark and smoky, full of drama. Suffering becomes her, and the more serious the music, the more fetching her singing.

Donizetti’s bucolic comedy revolves around the illiterate peasant Nemorino’s seemingly hopeless love for Adina, who is first seen reading the tale of “Tristan and Isolde.” Belcore marches into town and turns Adina’s head. Desperate, Nemorino buys an elixir from a funny quack, Dr. Dulcamara, but through a strange turn of events Adina realizes she has always loved Nemorino, and he comes into unexpected wealth. Belcore moves on to the next conquest, and Dulcamara’s re-bottled Bordeaux jumps off the shelves.

It has become fashion to seek out dramatic significance in “Elixir.” Nemorino’s famous “Una furtiva lagrima,” his revelation that Adina loves him when he notices a tear in her eye, is seldom heard anymore as lyric romanza. Giuseppi Filianoti, Villazón’s replacement made it the usual overstuffed tear-jerker Saturday.


That fit fairly well with Stephen Lawless’ busy if traditional production played against a handsome harvest-time set by Johan Engles. The tidy hay bales were a curiosity, given that baling machines didn’t come along until more than a 100 years after the 1832 opera, but the autumnal feeling, enhanced by Joan Sullivan-Genthe’s sensitive lighting, lent a hint of melancholy, despite some slapstick distraction.

Lawless’s “L’Elisir” is an ensemble piece, and everyone this time around appeared believable. But the production did tend to swallow up the young singers. Without large voices or over-sized personalities, they had trouble dominating the stage dramatically or vocally – hay (even fake hay) isn’t a very good acoustical substance.

Still, Machaidze, after a period of warming up, made a genuine star turn. Filianoti proved a more conventional Nemorino, but he sang with confidence. Dulcamara is usually a cynical old huckster. Giorgio Caoduro, the 28-year-old substitute for Raimondi, turned him into a thoughtless young entrepreneur not unlike those you might find in downtown hangouts on a Saturday night. His learning a lesson about love was touching and his splendid voice makes him a bass to watch. Gunn was an appealing Belcore, more suave than most if a little less funny.

The company’s music director, James Conlon, conducted with considerable grace. I’ll be eager to see what happens when the production settles down and the chorus gets over first night jitters. The orchestra, though mostly accompanimental, was a pleasure.

‘The Elixir of Love,’ Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22, 25 and 30; 2 p.m. Sept. 20 and 27; $20-$260; (213) 972-8001. Running time 2 hours, 35 minutes.

-- Mark Swed