A few operas in the standard repertory are performed and recorded so often their arias are nearly as popular as a Top 40 hit. Gaetano Donizetti's The Elixir of Love is one; there isn't a mediocre melody in the whole score of this unique comedy. But the very familiarity of this elegant music sometimes begs for fresh theatrical surroundings, which is exactly what Houston Grand Opera has provided in its first Elixir production in nearly two decades.
HGO offered some surprises during the opening night of Stephen Lawless's production. The major twist was a principal cast change just hours before curtain. Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas canceled his performance in the lead role because of his son's recent death; in his place stepped Houston Opera Studio artist Chad Shelton, who was plucked from the alternate cast. The emergency replacement recalled a similar situation two years ago when Shelton covered the vocals for an ailing Peter Kazaras in the opening-night performance of Billy Budd.
For his part, Shelton pulled off a livelier Nemorino than anyone could have expected. This pleasant surprise, combined with stage director Garnett Bruce's clever blocking of some banal scenes and choral interludes, gave this version of Elixir that trademark HGO novelty.
The story revolves around Nemorino's desire for the rich village girl, Adina, who has also attracted the eye of Belcore, an arrogant military sergeant. Nemorino gets a wild notion when Adina reads aloud the legend of Tristan and Isolde: He buys some of Dr. Dulcamara's magic elixir to make her fall for him. Little does he know the conniving quack has passed him a bottle of cheap Bordeaux.
The more the shy bumpkin drinks, the less he fawns over Adina. She ultimately gets riled over his sudden indifference and decides to punish him by marrying Belcore. The intrigue gets complicated when Nemorino enlists in the army to pay for more love potion and winds up inheriting a huge sum from a rich uncle. Now it's Adina's turn to pine after him.
Donizetti's score is laced with enough sublime yearning and sadness to make the character development a strong feature. Former Houston Opera Studio artist Ana Maria Martinez flawlessly balanced Adina's heady fickleness and heartfelt regret in her behavior toward the awkward suitor. Shelton didn't give the audience anything to complain about either, despite having to hastily assume the lead role. He doesn't possess the rippling aura of a blockbuster tenor, but his "underdog suitor" came off lively -- and at times frisky -- compared to Adina's willfulness and the hefty stage presences of Belcore and Dulcamara.
Earle Patriarco, who has performed Belcore at the Metropolitan Opera, pulled off the sergeant's role with the right measure of buffoonery, arrogance and musical sophistication. Bass-baritone Dale Travis, filling in for Dulcamara veteran Alfonso Antoniozzi, swallowed up the stage with his imitation of a quack parading his wares to ingenuous peasants. Under conductor Patrick Summers's direction, Kerri Marcinko's performance as Giannetta sounded silky and fresh.
On occasion, Bruce's stage direction and Johan Engels's set -- fashioned into a brownish wall of tall, narrow arches -- gave the lead singers and chorus the physical freedom to liven up a few predictable moments of the action. In Act I, after Adina tells Nemorino, in the bittersweet "Chiedi all'aura," that she'll never love him, the persistent oaf tries to pull her toward him. When she stubbornly slips out of his arms, he chases her up a staircase.
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Later on in Act II, after the village women get the news that Nemorino has inherited a family fortune, they sing a low-key number whose effect is rather benign compared to the male leads' sizzling antics. To add life to the song, Bruce has the singers face each other around a long table and rhythmically pass saucepans and utensils to one another. The gesture works, maybe, because it foreshadows the material wealth that some lucky unmarried girl is going to get if she can snag Nemorino.
Perhaps the most unusual piece of staging happens near the end of intermission. Oddly, the audience members have barely shuffled back to their seats when the villagers filter slowly on stage and mill about with no curtain to mask them. This continues mostly in silence, until the orchestra settles back into the pit before the lights go dim. The slow interlude sets the stage for the big wedding feast that kicks off Act II.
Fresh touches like these amid Donizetti's perfect score makes HGO's Elixir highly potent.
Houston Grand Opera performs The Elixir of Love through Saturday, February 12, at 7:30 p.m. in the Wortham Theater Center, Texas Avenue at Smith Street. Fall (713)227-ARTS for tickets, $22-$182.