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The Elixir of Charm

Teatro Costanzi
01/11/2023 -  & January 12, 13, 14, 15*, 2023
Gaetano Donizetti: L’elisir d’amore
Aleksandra Kurzak*/Ruth Iniesta (Adina), John Osborn*/Juan Francisco Gatell (Nemorino), Alessio Arduini*/Vittorio Prato (Belcore), Simone del Savio*/Davide Sangregorio (Il dottore Dulcamara), Giulia Mazzola (Giannetta)
Coro del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Ciro Visco (chorus master), Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Francesco Lanzillotta (conductor)
Ruggero Cappuccio (stage director), Nicola Rubertelli (sets), Carlo Poggioli (costumes), Vinicio Cheli (lighting)

A. Kurzak (© Fabrizio Sansoni/Opera di Roma)

Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera’s production was a monumental success thanks to an ideal cast and an imaginatively creative mise en scène. Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is an irresistible romantic comedy noted for its unusually catchy melodies. I’ve attended several productions of this opera and haven’t–until now–been satisfied with any of them. Ruggero Cappuccio is a brilliant stage director who has captured the spirit of the work, particularly its light‑heartedness and charm. Throughout the work, there is an atmosphere of fantasy that reinforces the simple plot and inspires the audience to believe in and sympathize with the characters.

Though the action is supposed to be in Northwestern Spain, a place almost as damp as England, the stage director and set designer opted for what is more likely a sunny Sicilian or Andalusian village, replete with white houses and blue skies. The sunny atmosphere suited the jovial plot. Even more astute was the choice of costumes. Yes, they could be nineteenth century Spanish peasant costumes, but the brilliant touch was the allusion to commedia dell’arte. The peasant girls, and especially Adina, looked like Columbina. Several young peasant men wore pants with square patterns reminiscent of Arlecchino. Likewise, Belcore’s regiment, which consisted of only two soldiers, resembled wooden toy soldiers. This extravagance made their limited number convincing and reduced the need for a full regiment. Their syncopated quasi-mechanical movements enhanced the atmosphere of fantasy. Further illusions materialized in two acrobats, elegantly choreographed, conjuring gaiety but never distraction.

At pensive moments, like Nemorimo’s Act II romance, “Una furtiva lagrima,” the acrobat’s movements added to the intensity. Finally, still more reverie ensued with a Turkish-costumed mime, intended to be Nemorino’s inner self (or perhaps romantic muse), urging him to be more audacious in his timid courting of Adina. In the hands of another, these extraneous elements could have easily distracted from the plot, or even caused chaos on stage, but Cappuccio obviously understood the essence of this work. If one looks at the four main characters, Adina, Nemorino, Belcore and Dulcamara, they’re a version of such commedia dell’arte stock characters as Columbina, Arlecchino, Brighella and Pantalone.

All four major roles were very superbly cast. John Osborn, a familiar star in bel canto operas, has a larger voice than the typical Nemorino, often sung by a smaller‑voiced tenore di grazia, such as the legendary Tito Schipa and Ferruccio Tagliavini, or the contemporary Juan Diego Flórez. However, Osborn being such a master of bel canto, he was able to adjust his voice and his inimitable style to the role. It’s hard to think of a more elegant tenor in this role. He brought the house down in “Una furtiva lagrima” to such an extent that the audience insisted on a bis, and he gracefully obliged–not an easy feat by any means! The one thing that alarmed me was the poor suspended acrobat who had to likewise give an encore. Osborn is not a natural comic and is more suited for dramatic bel canto roles, but it must be noted that he did his best portraying the naive country boy, and most often it worked.

The star of the show was the outstanding Aleksandra Kurzak, a first‑rate lyric coloratura and an amazing actress. From the moment she graced the stage, she exuded Adina’s traits; she was charming, astute, capricious and playful. She masterfully employed her body movements and her facial expressions to convey these with immediacy. In Kurzak, we finally have a soprano who understands what it means to be coquette. Many sopranos, especially in North America, mistake this for a woman with loose morals, which is inaccurate. Coquettishness is simply girlish, playful charm. Vocally, Kurzak is perfect for this soubrette role: a fruity feminine timbre, at ease in the upper register, with excellent diction and expressivity. In her Act I aria, “Bendette queste carte!... Della crudele Isotta,” she set the tone for the character. In her Act II duet with Dulcamara “La Nina gondoliera e il Senatore Tredenti,” she was the epitome of playfulness, yet avoiding cruelty, a common pitfall for many who take on the role of Adina. The idea of having the villagers hold a miniature gondola during the duet was charming. In her Act II duet with Nemorino, “Prendi per me sei libero,” she conveyed warmth, deftly transforming from capricious girl to tender young woman. Vocally and dramatically, this was the most perfect Adina I’ve ever witnessed on stage or on recordings (and there, the competition is abundant).

Alessio Arduini’s Belcore was exemplary, pompous but never over‑the‑top, as often is the case. His virile baritone, his deportment and his slim, tall physique helped convey the philandering officer’s conceit and his slightly vulgar charm. His Act I aria “Come Paride vezzoso,” where he compares his own charms to figures from Greek mythology, namely Paris (of the three graces) and the god of war Mars, was effective in conveying his character. The martial introduction, the toy soldiers of his regiment and Adina’s bewildered expression contrasted with his straight rendition of the aria, making it first‑rate unwarranted self‑derision.

The pleasure of experiencing Italian comic operas in Italy, including those of Mozart, is in having singers, the stage director and most importantly the audience, all understanding the language. And as the humour is understood, there’s no need to resort to slapstick and vulgarity. Here, bass Vittorio del Savio’s portrayal of Dulcamara was flawless. A role that is all too often played to excess was played just right by del Savio, for he understands there is enough comedy in both the text and the music. Some ideas by the stage director were especially effective, such as Dulcamara’s arrival in a triangular contraption that doubles as his store. He exits this contraption as a midget, a demanding physical feat, as he had to sing and walk with limbs folded. He then removed his coat, assuming his normal height. His clear diction in his first act aria “Udite, o rustici” made the aria sparkle like champagne. Every word was immaculately articulated, to the utter delight of the audience.

Giulia Mazzola made the most of her small role of Giannetta. She compensated for her role’s absence of demanding vocal passages in the Act II aria “Saria possibile” by being gorgeously expressive. In this aria, the female chorus was especially brilliant, fantasizing about wedding the now‑rich Nemorino (his rich uncle had just died). It was clear that chorus master Ciro Visco had prepared the Teatro dell’Opera’s chorus extremely well in this segment, as well as throughout the opera.

One further element, much appreciated, was the stage director’s use of the ballabile or danceable quality of this opera’s music. There were well-choreographed dances whenever the music called for it. This was visually appealing, and though demanding on both the lead singers and the chorus, was performed with seeming effortlessness.

The excellent singing was made even more splendid thanks to the attentive baton of Francesco Lanzillotta, who, despite keeping the tempi brisk and amply supporting the singers, treated the score with reverence as one would any major dramatic work. This is indeed a rarity in bel canto operas, especially comedies. Congratulations are in order to Teatro dell’Opera for a charming, dramatically effective and vocally superb production. My first opera for 2023 augurs well!

Ossama el Naggar



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