Elixir of Love

Kyle Ketelsen as Dulcamara holds the titular “Elixir of Love” in Lyric Opera’s new production.

Lyric Opera of Chicago has moved from a very dimly lit and hard to fathom production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” as its opening opera of the season to a brightly lit, colorful, and utterly charming rendition of Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore” (“The Elixir of Love”). With a new-to-Chicago production that originated at Opera North (in Leeds, England), this “Elixir” invites you to once again use the word infectious in a way that is not literally shrouded in dread. Here, instead, it describes an event that infects you with laughter and causes you to experience the joy of true love, which must first traverse a path riddled with missteps and ridiculous human errors.

This “Elixir of Love” has the heft which comes from fine singing actors, and wizardly visual flair that keeps your eyes glued to the stage so as not to miss a lovely costume, a hilarious entrance, or enjoyable antics.

Donizetti’s 1832 opera has long been a staple of the repertoire, beloved for its glorious bel canto score and its timeless comedy. It’s the story of Nemorino, a simple fellow who loves Adina, a woman of some importance in their small village who doesn’t give him the time of day. When military officer Belcore comes to town, he sets his sights on Adina, causing her to take interest and making Nemorino miserably jealous. When Doctor Dulcamara later arrives on the scene, he seemingly provides Nemorino the means to fend off his rival. But Dulcamara is what today we’d call a scam artist, and he convinces Nemorino that his elixir will cause Adina to fall in love with him. Even after he parts with his hard-earned cash and downs the draft, he cannot tell that he’s been sold nothing more than a bottle of cheap Bordeaux. Yet Nemorino’s inherent goodness and genuine love for Adina wins the day and the girl. True love triumphs.

Director Daniel Slater has updated the action to the mid-twentieth century and the unnamed village is somewhere on Italy’s Mediterranean coast, with Robert Innes Hopkins’s sets full of idyllic palm trees and blue skies framing Adina’s inviting hotel and café. The costumes — brightly hued and flattering — capture the sense of Italian style of the period. Belcore, normally an Army man, is instead in this production a naval officer who is outfitted handsomely in crisp, appealing whites. The chorus, representing villagers and tourists, are given various garbs so as to vividly create an assortment of distinct people.

Ailyn Peréz is a vivacious Adina: beautiful, headstrong, and witty. She glides across the stage (and often onto tables) with the poise of a fashion model and the confidence of a leader. Her singing is powerful and nearly always pretty, although I’m not entirely sure her immense talent is best employed as a bel canto soprano. Nonetheless, her stage presence is immense and she conveys the ups and downs of her feelings clearly, causing the audience to care about the choices she has to make.

Tenor Charles Castronovo is a winning Nemorino, a shy, country bumpkin who is easy for a woman to overlook. He deftly develops the character, so only slowly do we realize that for all his simplicity and naiveté, he is an honest man with a genuine and abiding love for Adina. His singing is not flashy, but it is funny when it needs to be and deeply moving when, at his lowest ebb, he believes he has lost Adina to the dashing naval captain.

Joshua Hopkins brings military swagger to the role of Belcore, and he and a small company of other naval personnel stride through the village with perfect posture and the right bit of military arrogance. They first appear on stage driving a trio of Vespas, adding to the period charm. He has a flexible baritone which he deploys with the kind of precision expected from a military man, and he exudes the sense of his own importance. It is easy to see how Adina is drawn to him and how Nemorino is left to believe that only a magic potion can save his hopes of happiness.

Kyle Ketelsen is an unusual Dulcamara because this comedic role is typically played by a much older and typically very large man. Ketelsen is a trim, handsome huckster and makes a fantastic, unforgettable entrance in a hot air balloon. This reference to another beloved scammer, the Wizard of Oz, fits perfectly into Slater’s vision of the opera.

Slater’s use of the Lyric Opera Chorus is beautiful, as the individual chorus members serve as waitstaff, customers and local inhabitants. They bring the village to life with vibrant singing and effective acting. 

Enrique Mazzola leads the Lyric Opera Orchestra expertly with well-paced music and a sense of buoyancy and fizz. He is acutely sensitive to the singers, blanketing them gently and never playing over them.

This “Elixir” is a tonic for the soul, better even than a bottle of fine Bordeaux.

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