Donizetti's Operatic Fluff 

Berkeley Opera's Elixir is like a sitcom in song.

L'Elisir d'Amore is a pleasant bit of operatic cotton candy. Translated as "The Elixir of Love," Gaetano Donizetti's opera is a simple comedy about a moaning lover who buys a con artist's love potion to win a hard-hearted beauty. The plot complications are surprisingly uncomplicated, and the melodies are delightfully sprightly and would be hummable if you could remember them long enough. It's 1832 Milan's equivalent of a sitcom, and that turns out to be good news.

The Berkeley Opera production at the Julia Morgan doesn't take many liberties with the material. It's sung in the original Italian with English supertitles and performed in some approximation of period dress. (Tammy Berlin's costumes range from a lovely orange gown for the cruel Adina to a motley assortment of ad hoc garb for the townsfolk.) Sure, the lovesick Nemorino does a Michael Jackson moonwalk at some point, but for the most part they take their Donizetti straight up without much postmodern adaptation.

The lively comic songs are sung beautifully by the few principals and sizeable chorus, and the tight orchestra is crisply conducted by Donato Cabrera. Robert Weinapple's staging has some sharp comedic moments, even if it doesn't entirely escape the frequent problem in operas and musicals that no one in town seems to have much better to do than stand around gaping at the young lovers.

It helps immensely that the principal singers don't just sing well (although that's by no means guaranteed and not to be dismissed — the whole enterprise would quickly turn torturous if they didn't) but are also pretty funny. Andrew Truett's rich tenor makes the lovestruck peasant's constant whining sound sublime, but he's also a gas when Nemorino gains confidence the old-fashioned way — the love potion he bought is actually just wine — and is dancing in the streets and laughing loudly at rivals. Bass baritone Paul Cheak is particularly funny as the snake oil salesman "Doctor" Dulcamara, in a purple top hat and ostentatious black cape.

Adina isn't just hard to get; she's a self-confessed fickle jerk who takes pleasure in Nemorino's anguish and takes interest only when he seems to lose interest in her. Soprano Angela Cadelago makes Adina much more than a pretty face with teasing coquettishness that quickly turns to spiteful fuming when she's crossed.

One of the aforementioned complications that turns out not to complicate things all that much has to do with Nemorino's rival for Adina's affections (one of many, so she says), the army sergeant Belcore. Torlef Borsting has a lovely baritone and has some fun with Belcore's preening swagger, but is otherwise in stiff stand-and-sing mode and amusingly limp in confronting Nemorino.

Elena Krell's role as Giannetta is puzzling. She's basically peasant girl number one, more prominent than the others in the chorus only because she stands in front of them, with a big smile and an unconvincing wig. Occasionally she sidles up to the principals and puts her arm around them, like a schoolgirl getting attention by sitting as close to the teacher as possible. What makes her role confusing is that throughout act one she just sings along with the rest of the chorus, aside from an occasional non-chorus line of her own.

Only after intermission is her prominence explained when she leads all the townswomen in an amusing stealthy parade on tiptoe and reveals to them that unbeknownst to Nemorino he's just inherited a great deal of money.

None of this is much of a reflection on Krell, a pleasant presence with a pleasing soprano. Sure, there are ways that she and director Weinapple might have tried to make her stand out that would seem more natural (and that wig isn't helping), but the fact that Giannetta is a non-character who emerges from the chorus unexpectedly is really an issue to take up with Felice Romani, who based his libretto on Eugène Scribe's text for Daniel Auber's opera Le Philtre that premiered only a year earlier, which in turn was based on Silvio Malaperta's play Il Filtro.

It's only one of many elements of the story that don't quite click, like the developments that you expect to be a big deal but aren't. Nemorino enlists in the army for a second dose of love potion, but that entanglement's disentangled before it even becomes an issue. His inheritance is forgotten right after providing a reason for ladies to swoon over him, making him think the elixir is working. Similarly, there are no consequences of crossing his soldierly rival, or of the con man's hucksterdom. It doesn't even matter if Adina's been dosed to love him or has fallen for him naturally. It's all in good fun, and it doesn't do to think too much about it.

There's a reason Donizetti's comic opera has remained popular, not because it's devilishly clever but because it's refreshingly uncomplicated. There's nothing like challenging work to really engage your intellect, but sometimes there's nothing wrong with good clean fluff.


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