Arts & Events

New: A Sparkling L’ELISIR D’AMORE at San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday April 06, 2015 - 04:20:00 PM

Donizetti’s comic opera L’Elisir d’Amore is a perennial crowd-pleaser, full of rustic exuberance, well-delineated characters, and a brilliant vocal and instrumental score. This opera has captivated audiences ever since its première on May 12, 1832, at Milan’s Canobiana Theatre, where it was an instant success. Recently, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music gave two fully staged performances of L’Elisir d’Amore on Thursday, April 2, and Saturday, April 4 in their Hume Concert Hall. 

After a spirited orchestral prelude conducted by Scott Sandmeier, L’Elisir d’Amore got under way with a group of peasants taking a noontime break from their chores in the shade of several trees. Giannetta, a peasant girl sung by soprano Sabrina Romero, celebrates the cool shade. Nemorino, an unlettered but sensitive peasant lad, observes the young and pretty Adina reading a book. To himself, Nemorino sings of his attraction to Adina, “Quanto è bella, quanto è cara (“How lovely, how dear to me”). Right away, from these first words, young Mexican tenor Mario Rojas as Nemorino staked out his claim to a first-class lyric tenor presence, exhibiting a voice that is beautifully nuanced and supple, yet deeply expressive and passionate. As the recipient of the Plácido Domingo scholarship, Mexico’s most prominent young artist award, Mario Rojas is presently a sophomore at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. 

Adina, sung by soprano Evan Kardon, interrupts her reading with laughter, and when questioned, replies that the story she’s reading strikes her as funny and absurd. It’s a love story, she says, about Tristan’s unrequited love for Isolde (Isotta in Italian). Obtaining a magic potion, Tristan drank it and became irresistible to Isolde, who married him and lived happily ever after. Adina and the peasants sing of this magical elixir of love. 

To martial music Sergeant Belcore enters the scene. As Belcore, baritone Daniel Cameron struts around like the cock of the walk. Impressed by the beauty of Adina, he presents her a flower. “No girl can resist a soldier,” he croons arrogantly. Impetuously, Belcore proposes marriage to Adina. Observing this, Nemorino despairs. Adina replies to Belcore with flirtatious caution, singing, “Non è si facile Adina a conquistar” (“It’s not so easy to conquer Adina”). As Adina, soprano Evan Kardon has a fine voice with a slight edge to it. In this opera her opening music is characterized by playful detachment, as if she’s aware of both her station, as daughter of the owner of this farm, and her beauty; and she obviously delights in teasing her suitors. 

Left alone on stage, Nemorino and Adina embark on a duet over the question of love. Adina declares herself incapable of settling on one suitor. When asked why not, she replies, “Chiedi al aura” (“Ask the breeze why it softly blows from flower to flower”). When Adina asks Nemorino in turn why he persists in pursuing her, he replies, “Chiedi al rio” (“Ask the river why it flows to the sea”). In this exchange, Adina still adopts her air of playful detachment, and her musical lines offer coquettish ornamentation, while Nemorino’s melodic lines are lyrically simple yet passionate. 

Soon the sound of a trumpet announces the arrival of Dr. Dulcamara, an itinerant medicine man, who quickly sings the praises of his quack remedies. Sung by bass-baritone Sergey Khalikulov, Dulcamara rattles off an entertaining buffo aria, full of patter in monotone declamation. Khalikulov’s voice is ingratiating in this humorous role. There is little hint here of the sometimes sinister aspect of Dulca-mara. Rather, this Dulcamara seems to accompany all his patter with a sly wink. The local peasants are taken in and buy his quack remedies. Nemorino buys an elixir of love – actually, a bottle of cheap wine. Dulcamara says it will make Nem-orino irresistible to women; but it will need a day to take effect (by which time Dr. Dulcamara will be long gone). Nemorino chugs his elixir and becomes happily intoxicated. He feigns a lack of interest in Adina, who begins to wonder what’s going on. To seek revenge on Nemorino, Adina agrees to marry Belcore in three days time. Nemorino, smug in his confidence in Dulcamara’s elixir, thinks he has plenty of time for the elixir to take effect tomorrow and make Adina love him instead of Belcore. 

However, Belcore and Adina announce their intention to wed, and the villagers prepare a wedding feast. Nemorino becomes desperate and seeks more of the magic elixir from Dulcamara. But he lacks the cash to buy it. Belcore offers to sign up Nemorino as an enlistee in the army, for which he’ll get cash. Nemorino hesitates, yet acquiesces and signs the papers. With the cash, he buys another bottle of Dulcamara’s magic elixir of love.  

Meanwhile, the peasant girls get wind of something that neither Nemorino nor Adina knows – Nemorino’s uncle has died and left him a fortune. The local girls now all make a play for Nemorino. He believes it’s the elixir now taking effect. When Adina sees Nemorino surrounded by all the local girls, she sheds a tear of regret and jealousy. Nemorino, seeing this tear, disengages himself from all his female admirers, and sings this opera’s greatest aria, “Una furtiva lagrima” (“A furtive tear”). This, of course, is one of the most renowned and most performed arias in the entire Italian repertoire. Mario Rojas sang this beautiful aria exquisitely, with a subtlety and timbre reminiscent of the great Nicolai Gedda. The applause for Mario Rojas at the conclusion of this aria was explosive. Young Mario Rojas will hopefully be singing this and many other great arias in opera houses around the world in future years. He is definitely a singer worth watching! 

With this aria, Nemorino realizes he has won Adina’s love. She quickly acknowledges this, informing him that she has bought off Nemorino’s enlistment papers, and they embrace. Belcore happens to see them locked in an embrace and realizes he has lost out. But he happily asserts he’ll find lots of other women along the way. Dr. Dulcamara boasts of the miraculous powers of his magic potion and everyone joins in celebrating the love of Nemorino and Adina.  

Finally, a word must be said of the staging of this opera by Jose Maria Condemi. Utilizing a unitary set that was augmented by the addition of a long table for a wedding feast and a maypole for the village dances accompanying the wedding celebrations, director Condemi kept the action moving all throughout L’Elisir d’ Amore. He also utilized a narrow runway placed between the audience and the orchestra pit as a site for increased intimacy, putting the singers in close proximity to the audience, as was the case, significantly, for Nemorino’s “Una furtiva lagrima.” 

In addition, this runway served as a convenient take-off site for singers’ entrances and exits through the side aisles of the audience. It all worked perfectly and gave this production a flair and intimacy that were extremely welcome in this emotion-ally intimate opera.