The village flirt tosses aside the book of the romance of Tristan and Isolde she has been reading aloud, flippantly singing, “If only I knew that recipe” for the famous love potion, as the chorus of peasants idling in the piazza picks up the refrain—and her forlorn, would-be suitor Nemorino, who’s caught the storybook as if it was the garter flung after a wedding, finds himself in the same predicament.
Spurned by Adina the flirt, outrivalled by the bellicose sergeant of the local garrison, with no money or position, what can he do to win her fickle heart besides wish for the impossible? Is there an elixir of love that can revitalize his suit?
Berkeley Opera’s sprightly staging of Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’amore at the Julia Morgan Center takes off from there and tells the musical tale with both insouciant zest and quiet sensitivity, firmly on opera’s original ground, a divertissement for all the sensibilities. This “Elixir” also tests the ever-famous placebo effect, when snake-oil Doctor Dulcamara shows up and sells Nemorino a ceramic flask of Bordeaux as his surefire romantic philtre, giving the young man a big shot of hope and confidence in exchange for his last coin. It also involves dubious practices in military recruitment—so it’s a timely springtime show for Berkeley, indeed.
The complications of the plot unfold felicitously, without the usual turgid, often boffo, vertiginous operatic reversals, due to its origin in a work by Eugene Scribe, the accredited father of the “well-wrought play,” the three-to-five act predecessor to all the great commercial vehicles of the West End and of Broadway, and of the better Hollywood movie scripts, sporting that dramatic or comic “arc” reviewers talk about. (“Send your hero up a tree, throw rocks at him, then get him back on the ground again,” as George M. Cohan memorably summarized a three-act’s plot).
But every bit as much, felicity comes from the fine acting of the singers and the exemplary stage direction by Robert Weinapple. Never static, the scenes are filled with a vigorous counterpoint in movement and gesture that’s not just an illustration of the feeling of the music or of the words of the libretto.
The lighting design by Cameron Mock is as fluid and accurate as the performers’ style, showing the contrast between the scenes with the whole company and the smaller groups, the duets and solos, playing over a set (by Lili Smith and Kevin Keul) of the village that’s simple yet flexible, an evocative backdrop for every mood.
Tammy Berlin’s costuming also reflects contrast, from the rustic simplicity of the peasants to the cock-of-the-walk martial dandyism of the sergeant, and the gaudy display of the montebank that the locals take for gentility. “He must be a senator at least,” the bumpkins intone as the illustrious Professor steps forward to bark in his reddish top-hat and sash.
Elisir is a romantic comedy, containing its own burlesque, so in some respects the palms go to the buffo villain and the comic schemer, sergeant-rival and medicine show star. Torlef Borsting is an admirably smarmy Sgt. Belcore, puffed up with himself, and Paul Cheak even better, finding so many funny and sympathetic nuances playing and singing the fly-by-night Dottore Dulcamare.
But the moods are modulated so well that the success of the comedy never blurs the romantic emotions. Angela Cadelago as Adina and Andrew Truett as Nemorino have their own, well-played and sung comic moments, coming forward more and more in the pathetic and romantic vignettes, the braver vocals saved for the arias and duets at the climax and near the happy end.
The five principals (including a charming Elena Krell as Gianetta, “a peasant girl” who is in some ways the leader of the village chorus) and 19 chorines, both peasants and soldiers, interact well, both vocally and theatrically, often overlapping and sometimes serving as counterpoint to each other.
Throughout, Donato Cabrera, associate conductor with the San Francisco Opera and music director for the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, presides over the orchestra of 19 with grace and alacrity.
Presented by Berkeley Opera at 8 p.m. Friday March 28, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 30 at the Julia Morgan Center, 2640 College Ave. $10-$44. (925) 798-1300.