Meacham Calls “Elixir of Love” Actually Funny

Andrew Meacham’s Writes:

Here’s a one-question poll. Suppose your favorite comedian was coming through town.

But for the same ticket price, you could instead attend a “comic opera” written in the 19th century. Ask 20 people on the streets of St. Petersburg which show they would rather attend.

It wouldn’t be close. But here’s why you should consider taking the long shot. The Elixir of Love, the St. Petersburg Opera Company’s latest, is actually funny.

Gaetano Donizetti’s opera unfolds with relative simplicity and a cast of five (not including the chorus). No one assumes someone else’s identity by wearing a mask on a stick. There are no deposed kings or singing statues, and somehow no one is stabbed to death.

Instead you get the story of a poor man’s love for a haughty farm owner, gift-wrapped in the composer’s bel canto style. That style accentuates the voice, often through legato phrasings that allow singers to settle into sustained notes. If done well, it is something to savor, and that is especially true with these leads. Blake Friedman as Nemorino, the peasant in love with Adina, offers up some lovely cascades, including several a cappella bars on the steps outside her second-floor doorway (a suitable place for the top of his range, which Friedman handled effortlessly).

Two intermediaries alter the course of things. Belcore, a vainglorious army sergeant played with a dark voice and charm by Christopher Holloway, wants to marry Adina. Nemorino’s only hope is Dr. Dulcamara, a huckster who is passing through town selling a magic potion.

Since he’s a few dollars short, the quack doctor hands him a bottle of wine and tells him it is the elixir. Nemorino believes it, and that belief gives him newfound confidence. Pieces fall predictably into place from there, and it’s fun to watch that happen.

A smaller cast left more room for Michael Becker to create a fuller set than the opera company has unveiled recently. The cast and a bright chorus directed under stage director Melissa Misener add life and dramatic interest to the production. Whoever picked out the loud plaid costume (from Wardrobe Witchery) for Dulcamara was having some fun. Also having fun is bass Ryan Allen, who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera and in all 50 states. Despite an occasional slight bobble with pitch or pace, Allen still sings an awe-inspiring melody, albeit more in segments now than continuously.

But the real draw is the promising Bridgette Gan as Adina, who made a strong impression in her St. Petersburg Opera debut. From her opening aria, Of the Cruel Isolda, Gan captures the ear and eye with power and precision. She also made use of other bel canto staples, such as the gradual crescendo and decrescendo, a portamento or glide between notes, and the artful gesture as part of a song’s delivery. It was hard to watch her performance and imagine anyone else playing Adina.

On a recent afternoon, some 400 middle-schoolers hopped off buses at the Palladium to see The Elixir of Love. The St. Petersburg Opera Company included schools with a record of academic struggles. A board member of the St. Petersburg Opera Guild, which helped underwrite the project, reported that the kids loved the opera, especially when Nemorino and Adina kiss at the end.