Review: Calgary Opera's Elixir of Love a fine balance between story and song

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By Kenneth DeLong

Donizetti’s melody-drenched comic opera The Elixir of Love is the second of the three operas being presented by Calgary Opera this season. Staring Canadian soprano Simone Osborne and Texan David Portillo, the production opened to an enthusiastic audience, a fitting response to the fine, idiomatic singing of the principal singers in a detailed, humorous, and nuanced staging.

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Operatic comedy is notoriously hard to bring off, especially in older works in which the comic premise and characterizations can come across as old-fashioned. In this production, played squarely in the style of the Italian rural Goldoni-style comedy, the characters are presented both as stock clichés types and as universals.

These characters allow the audience to look at the human condition unflinchingly, holding up the mirror of life human beings presented with all their foibles and vanities. As might be expected, it’s the story of the search for true love, a love achieved only with many comic pitfalls. The hero is gullible to the extreme, has to fend off a rival with advantages he doesn’t have and falls into the trap of a con man; the heroine doesn’t really know her own mind about whom she loves until it is almost too late; and all this takes place in public before the not-always sympathetic view of villagers,

Considered this way, who could take the story seriously? But in this production, just before the end, when the many problems have finally been overcome, the audience bursts out into applause at the reconciliation scene. This could not happen unless the audience was engaged with the story. It was a moment as moving in its way as the reconciliation of Darcy and Elizabeth at the end of Pride and Prejudice.

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Together with the singing, much credit for this fine production must be given to the excellent stage direction of Pablo Maritano in his debut with the company. The style and tone of the action suited the music extremely well, the charming sets and costumes provided by the New Orleans Opera Association and the Sarasota Opera Association created a never-never-land of Italian village life.

The Calgary Opera Chorus was sensitively integrated into the action and sang with their customary fine tone and clarity of diction. Their stylized movements in the big choral numbers walked a fine line between dramatic realism and an audience-directed sense of play that conveyed the message that nothing here should be taken action too seriously or as completely inconsequential. This balance of dramatic view gives the production an objectivity characteristic of Italian-style comedy, a balance difficult to find but here achieved with remarkable success.

Simone Osborne in Calgary Opera’s The Elixir of Love. HarderLee Photography cal

In the end, without fine singing, nothing really works in opera. This production is blessed with two superb Donizetti singers, both with light, clear voices — agile, and with ringing high notes when needed. Simone Osborne in her debut with the company was an attractive Adina, singing with a pure, attractive sound and with remarkable ease in the most difficult florid music. Dramatically, she made a fine transition from her unthinking, somewhat callous persona at the opening to a woman who has admitted her love at the end. One would have to look far and wide to find a better performance in this leading role.

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Osborne was well matched with David Portillo as Nemorino, the love-smitten, gullible country bumpkin who in the end is rescued from his many gaffes and achieves his romantic goal through simple sincerity. Portillo gets the most famous aria in the opera, “Una furtiva lagrima,” Pavarotti’s signature tune. Portillo made the most of it, his voice perfectly suited to the nuances of the beguiling melody and with the needed heft at the end. Portillo was also effective on stage and, like Osborne, able to suggest his transformation to a man worthy of Adina. Both singers participated in many comic ensemble numbers, some of the best parts of the opera.

The comic complications were provided by Andrew Love as Belcore, heard in, perhaps, the best of the many performances he has given in Calgary. The part suits him both dramatically and vocally, and Love took full advantage of the comic possibilities of the role. He was well matched by Ao Li, also in a debut performance, as the amiable quack Dr. Dulcamara, the peddler of love potions (or cheap wine). Li was endlessly inventive in his antics on stage and sang with authority as well.

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The secondary roles were also well handled, especially Christine Thanisch-Smith as Adina’s friend and confident, Giannetta. Her number with the chorus was richly comic and a memorable point in the production.

Yet another debut came with conductor Farkhad Khudyev, who led the Calgary Philharmonic with skill and clarity, judging the tempos well and never letting the orchestra cover the voices. This is particularly hard to do in this opera since most of the voices are light. The rhythms were always perky in the “cute” numbers, and there was orchestral atmosphere in the more dramatic moments. The orchestral playing was crisp and taut, and the many solos (especially the trumpet) delivered with Italianate elan.

Charm is the fundamental attribute of this production, all washed down with mountains of melody, fine singing, and eye-catching stage action. The opera plays again on Wednesday and Friday. It is a production well worth braving a Calgary winter to see.

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