Elixir of Love A Bel Canto Treat From Houston Grand Opera

A bel canto comedy from Donizetti
A bel canto comedy from Donizetti
Photo by Lynn Lane

The set-up:
The latest issue of Opera News heralds the return of Kathleen Battle, that supernaturally gifted American soprano who raised the fine art of singing into the ether in the '70s and '80s.

With dazzling technique, crystalline plush voice, and radiant stage presence, Battle embodied all true aspects of the perfect lyric soprano. She was a wiz at Mozart, Handel, Rossini, Donizetti; as Sophie, she flew over Strauss's Rosenkavalier as if on wings.

Then the demons got her, and this darling of the opera world morphed into a Fury who canceled performances, threw tantrums, and behaved outrageously to her colleagues and staff. You might say, overnight, she became Sheila Jackson Lee. (She makes a belated comeback this November at the Metropolitan Opera, the august institution who fired her 1994 and pretty much ended her stage career, in a recital concert of spirituals, another of her signature niches that she alone once ruled.)

The execution:
But if the headline “Kathleen Battle Returns” whets your inner diva, then look no further than to Houston Grand Opera and its somewhat sparkling production of Gaetano Donizetti's beguiling comedy The Elixir of Love to witness Battle's avatar, Nicole Heaston, fortunately sans diva antics.

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An HGO Studio alumna, Heaston is the sure thing, a complete artist. We have watched her grow through leading roles since 1998 at HGO: Susanna in Marriage of Figaro, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Gilda in Rigoletto, Pamina in Magic Flute. But now is her time in the sun. She has transformed into an artist of rare beauty. (HGO had better be proud of her!) She conquers the stage as Adina, here, in director Daniel Slater's update to '50s sun-drenched Italian seaside resort, owner of a posh hotel instead of Donizetti's original bucolic rich landowner. The change in eras doesn't hurt anybody, and at least supplies Heaston the opportunity to sport some fashionable outfits like capri pants, sunglasses, and couture sundresses, which she wears as if born to the catwalk. But what a performer, and what a singer. She sails through the difficult coloratura, most of it in the second act, with complete control and always with clarity of diction, a pulsing rich timbre, and surety of character.

Adina's in love with poor lug Nemorino (tenor Dimitri Pittas) but won't commit, happily playing him along. He's crazy in love with her, and when snake oil salesman Dr. Dulcamara (bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi) arrives in town by balloon, like the Wizard of Oz, with his “magic potion” which of course is nothing but cheap red wine, Nemorino takes the bait and spends all his money on the fake nostrum. Meanwhile, macho naval officer Belcore (bass baritone Michael Sumuel) puts the make on pretty Adina, and she strings him along to make Nemorino jealous.

In Felice Romani's felicitous libretto, the ups and downs of love are filled with sunshine and warm humor, interspersed by Donizetti with some sparkling tunes and one internationally renowned aria, “Una furtiva lagrima” (“A secret tear”) sung by Nemorino when he thinks that maybe, just maybe, Adina does in fact love him too. Pittas, alone on stage, wraps himself in the plaintive song like a warm sweater, allowing his plangent tenor to soar effortlessly through the Wortham, warming us, too. It's a tenor's dream song, and fortunately director Slater lets him have the spotlight all to himself, without any of the other annoying “touches” with which he constantly mars this production. There's a lot of shtick here, most of it gratuitous and out of character, but we overlook these distractions because the young cast, a lot of whom are HGO Studio alumni, sing the work with such finesse and adoration.

And thank goodness, we finally get to hear British maestro Jane Glover, one of opera's few distaff conductors, in the flesh. She lets the fizz and wit of Donizetti burst through, full of texture and spirit. The HGO chorus under Richard Bado's direction, though hobbled by Slater's misguidance, purrs magnificently.

The verdict:
It took Donizetti 35 previous operas to get to his first major success, Anna Bolena (1830), but the prolific composer wasted precious time after that, and soon to follow were certifiable successes as Elixir (1832), Lucrezia Borgia (1832), Maria Stuarda (1835), his masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), La fille du regiment (1840), La favorite (1840), and his last great comic buffa Don Pasquale (1843). With Rossini retired, Bellini dead, and young Giuseppe Verdi waiting in the wings, Donizetti took up the mantle of Italian opera and ran with it until ravaged by syphilis in 1848. His works are the preeminent examples of bel canto style, extremely difficult to pull off because of their vocal demands, but when sumptuously performed as is HGO's Elixir there's heavenly music in the air. Who needs Battle?

Elixir of Love. October 23m, 26, 29; November 1m, 3m, 4, and 9. (Tenor Chris Bozeka sings Nemorino, November 1m, 3m, and 9; Soprano Mane Galoyan sings Adina, November 1m, 3m, and 9; Federico de Michelis sings Dr. Dulcamara November 1m, 3m, and 9; baritone Ben Edquist sings Belcore, November 1m, 3m, and 9.) Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $15 to $290.

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