A charming cast sparks the frothy fun in Lyric’s lively “Elixir”

Mon Sep 27, 2021 at 2:38 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Ailyn Perez and Charles Castronovo star in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo: Cory Weaver

Lyric Opera audiences may be in danger of getting the bends this comeback fall season—going in one week from the bleak darkness and regicide of Macbeth to the frothy comedy of The Elixir of Love. 

Happily, unlike Verdi’s dramma lirico, in which unwonted directorial intrusions undermined the production, a colorful staging served Donizetti’s romantic comedy quite well, allowing a charming cast to shine at Sunday’s matinee opening.

Robert Innes Hopkins’ production (from Opera North) updates L’elisir d’amore to a seaside Italian resort, circa early 1960s. Hopkins’ unit set is a sunny outdoor cafe, part of the hotel owned by Adina. Here Nemorino is not only hopelessly in love with Adina but also a waiter in her cafe, further complicating not only his personal but professional life. Hopkins’ Mediterranean coastal retreat is complemented by his array of brightly hued period costumes for the principals and chorus.

Director Daniel Slater keeps the action lively and constantly in motion. At time he flirts with over-caffeinated busyness with constant side action and repeated jumping on tables. Yet for the most part, this production is clever and eye-catching, and the cast seemed to be having a great deal of fun, enjoyment that was infectious at Sunday’s opening performance.

Charles Castronovo made a successful Lyric debut a decade ago as Tamino in The Magic Flute and his fitful appearances since then have been equally inspired—not least a knockout Lensky in Lyric’s 2017 Eugene Onegin.

The New York native proved eminently well suited to the role of the lovelorn Nemorino. Castronovo’s tenor sounds a bit weighty for this bel canto role and ideally one would like more golden tone and Italianate sweetness on top. Still, he sang with fine agility and refined lyric expression, rising to the opera’s showcase aria with a tender, nicely shaded “Una furtiva lagrima.” Castronovo proved a likable and endearing Nemorino, consistently alive to the comedy while not overplaying the bumpkin or overdoing the intoxicating effects of Dr. Dulcamara’s magical love elixir—actually Bordeaux.

Joshua Hopkins as Belcore and Ailyn Perez as Adina in The Elixir of Love. Photo: Cory Weaver

Clad in an array of period wear—including fuchsia capri pants—Ailyn Perez was a worthy Adina, the object of Nemorino’s affections. She has been singing heavier roles in recent years—including Marguerite in Lyric’s numbing 2018 production of Faust—yet her soprano remains flexible and with a purity of tone well suited to this bel canto role. Perez was at her finest—vocally and dramatically in Act 2, bringing a touching sensitivity to her belated duet with Nemorino. Dramatically, if she was a bit arch in conveying Adina’s vixenish charms in the early going, Perez was more credible in the girl’s growing realization that she loves Nemorino, and her happy affection in the couple’s eventual union was delightful.

Joshua Hopkins was a superb Guglielmo in Lyric Opera’s memorable Cosi fan tutte of 2018. The Canadian baritone proved just as vital a comedic presence as Nemorino’s dashing rival, Belcore. Here rather than the blustery army captain, Belcore is a naval officer who enters on a Vespa, followed by his fellow sailors. Hopkins sang with a fine, dark-hued voice throughout and once again showed himself a natural comedian. Belcore’s over-the-top macho swagger was consistently hilarious while still keeping the character’s edge of danger and violent jealousy.

Kyle Ketelsen offered a younger-generation Dulcamara than the usual veteran Italian singers who get cast in this buffo role. Yet his relative youth nicely suited the production. Here Dulcamara—who enters by hot-air balloon—is not a traveling medicine show quack but a slick, nattily attired confidence man. (For once, the Act 2 flirtation between Adina and Dulcamara seemed entirely plausible.) Though lacking a rounded Italianate bass, Ketelsen handled the rapid-fire patter respectably and entered into the comedy with as much energy and panache as his colleagues.

Ryan Opera Center member Denis Vélez was a spirited  presence as Adina’s sidekick, Giannetta.

The chorus of villagers—here tourists and vacationers—figures prominently in this opera, and Lyric Opera’s ensemble members were a full-voiced characterful bunch, often worked into the principals’ stage action by the director. Chorus master Michael Black was given the first solo curtain bow on Sunday, which was well deserved.

In his Lyric Opera appearances to date, Enrique Mazzola has seemed most in his element with bel canto works and so it proved again Sunday in Donizetti’s comedy. Some of the Lyric Opera Orchestra’s playing lacked that last bit of surface sheen, but the company’s new music director drew playing of vigor and lyric elegance as needed.

The Elixir of Love runs through October 8. lyricopera.org

Photo: Cory Weaver

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