by Don Westwood
The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra’s yearly opera presentation is one of the region’s most eagerly awaited cultural events. The local audience is augmented by opera fans who travel from central and south Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. This year’s offering was Donizetti’s romantic comedy, L’ELISIR D’AMORE (THE ELIXIR OF LOVE), performed on Saturday, February 5, in the Moran Theatre at the Times-Union Center. The opera was presented by the Julius N. Frankel Foundation.
The audience of about 2,000 was treated to a production that surpassed most American regional efforts by a wide margin. Very few opera companies have an orchestra on the level of the JSO or a Conductor with the musical intelligence and leadership skills of Fabio Mechetti. The Maestro’s touch was at the core of ELIXIR’s success, with tempi, orchestral dynamics, and overall pacing suggestive of the finest European productions of this opera.
In accord with that high standard, the rest of the company rose to the occasion in fine style. Stage Director A. Scott Parry deserves much of the credit. For at least the past half-century THE ELIXIR OF LOVE has been a bastion of bits for directors. Thankfully, this production sported no references to the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, or The Three Stooges. There were no “inside” opera gags or outlandish props such as giant bottles labeled “Beethoven’s Fifth.” We can overlook a couple of anachronisms – several Jackie Gleason style shoves and Dulcamara’s entrance on a rickshaw bicycle pedaled by a goofy assistant. The former would have led to bloodshed in 19th century Italy, and the latter did not exist at that time. In general, Parry’s direction focused on the actual story, allowing the intrinsic sweetness and humor of the piece to emerge moment to moment.
This authentic approach allowed the fine cast of principals to develop their characters and reveal the opera’s relationships naturally. All of the principals sang with variety and attention to dynamics. Leading the cast as Nemorino, tenor Stanford Olsen offered up the consistently pure vocalism and direct acting style he has displayed throughout a significant career. Olsen’s sincerity and vocal lyricism work especially well in this role. Stacey Tappan, seen as Despina in last season’s COSI FAN TUTTE with the JSO, performed a well-focused and vocally satisfying Adina. She is a rising star on the opera horizon.
In addition to the requisite swagger and good looks, baritone Grant Youngblood brought an unusually beautiful sound to the role of Belcore. Buffo bass Kevin Glavin found a few subtle colorings in the role of Dulcamara, giving this character a more interesting and varied palette than is usually seen. Further to that, he actually sang the role, rather than shouting his way through it. Soprano Lielle Berman exemplified luxury casting as the village girl Giannetta. The Jacksonville Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Jon O. Carlson, was well-prepared musically and appeared to perform individual assignments as directed.
The physical production for ELIXIR was marvelous. Designed by Constantinos Kritikos for the New Orleans Opera, the finely detailed, realistic set, essentially a village square, fit perfectly on the large Moran stage. Lighting design by Nick Ciccarello provided perfect, unobtrusive support. Susan Memmott Allred’s costumes looked fresh and appropriately rustic. The performance ran flawlessly, with Lesley Stone (Production Stage Manager) and Kevin Roberts (Director of Production) in charge of the backstage operation. Titles Operator Scott Gregg did a fine job with Lindley L. Becker’s excellent SuperTitles.
Musically, THE ELIXIR OF LOVE is rooted in its 1830s time period. It’s an opera buffa essentially in the bel canto style, with occasional flourishes of opera seria (old style serious opera) utilized for comic effect. Words like “sparkling” are often used to describe the musical score. One of the opera’s challenges is to differentiate the musical numbers. Failure to do this results in an evening of organ grinder music from the orchestral standpoint. The JSO’s production had no such problems.
At the level of story, ELIXIR is an interesting hybrid piece featuring a number of serious cultural issues folded into the comic opera plot. Hybrid elements include individualized characters (Nemorino and Adina) interacting with stock characters (Dulcamara, the quack doctor, and Belcore, the braggart soldier) based on characters dating at least to 16th century commedia dell’arte. The stock characters are there to entertain, while the individualized characters are there to enlighten, giving THE ELIXIR OF LOVE qualities we experience in Broadway shows by Rogers and Hammerstein and numerous others.
As modern audience members, we understand the hopelessness of Nemorino (“Little Nothing” or “Little Nobody” in Italian) as he tries to find the courage to woo his lady love, and we empathize with Adina, a wealthy and educated young landowner, struggling with her love for the illiterate farmer who enjoys no respect in the village. Both of these characters undergo personal growth in the opera, separating them from the stock characters.
With current performances by top international companies such as the Royal Opera (London), La Scala (Milan), Bolshoi Opera (Moscow), and the Metropolitan Opera (New York), among others, now available in movie theaters, pressure has been added to the ever-present challenge of presenting a credible regional production. This production succeeded because it had its own true values and did not attempt to compete with the grandest of the grand.