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Posted by on Apr 6, 2011 in Reviews | 1 comment

Operagasm Exclusive Review: NYCO L’elisir d’amore

by Sarah Heisler

There is so much going on onstage in New York City Opera’s revival of Jonathan Miller’s production of L’elisir d’amore, that only by the second act does it become clear that you’ve been listening to some truly talented voices sing one of the best loved operas in the repertoire. Updating the action of Gaetano Donizetti’s 1832 two act melodramma giocoso to rural 1950s America brings with it the dual-edged sword of immediately putting it into a welcome visual idiom for American audiences but also allowing the bel canto vocal style to dim to an afterthought as the singers perform their Elvis-esque hip gyrations and the chorus from the Act One finale degenerates into a half-hearted conga line.

The audience fairly swooned the moment that young, handsome, enthusiastic Brad Cohen stepped onto the podium; he would set the standard for what would be a shockingly young, incredibly enthusiastic, and reasonably attractive cast. Cohen led a rousing and interesting overture, which was not surprising, given his impressive orchestral resume. Unfortunately when it came time to collaborate with singers he was on less stable ground, not giving them what they wanted and not clearly communicating what he wanted. This created a frequent and palpable tension as tempi and phrasing were hotly contested within almost every ensemble. The percussion was exuberant and perhaps a bit too loud, as was the orchestra as a whole during many of the chorus scenes. It took a considerable amount of time at the start of the second act for the singers and conductor to even get close to the same page.

Mexican tenor David Lomeli spun a beautiful and agile sound with a bit of a bite as Nemorino. Let it be said, however, that beauty and agility do not a bel canto technique make, and while the potential was there, “Una furtiva lagrima” fell flat to an audience listening for true technique and not the cheap thrills of perhaps the most famous cadenza in opera. Indeed, the aria was a fascinating example of the hallmarks of this production: limitless vocal potential, infectious enthusiasm, and not-quite-mature-enough technique. Still, he unleashed stunning pianissimo while sounding like an appealing amalgam of Juan Diego Florez’s forwardness with a tinge of Roberto Alagna’s color and power. You could not have asked for a more committed actor in the [often distracting and dizzying] capering antics asked for in the staging. He was reminiscent of Jack Black – incredibly charming, but not your typical leading man.

Taking second place in the youth and enthusiasm contest was baritone José Adán Pérez as Belcore. Although a little unsure vocally on his entrance, he warmed up to let out a truly beautiful lyric baritone with generous depth and easy high notes that were surprising given his diminutive size. In his military khakis and swagger he resembled nothing so much as Ricky Riccardo doing a scene at the nightclub and his bravado and presence were effective and amusing.

Ukrainian soprano Stefania Dovhan was the true delight of the day. She possesses a beautiful open, lyric, full sound that is free from tension at the extremities and rings out with an ease and clarity that is delightful and refreshing. As a fan of full-voiced Adinas, it was a treat to hear her lovely resonant sound and hints of a fuller bottom  that would be welcome additions across the plaza at the Metropolitan Opera. Her “Prendi” was perhaps the most stunning I’ve heard it, as she unfurled a truly sumptuous voice with a good deal more control than her male colleagues.

When baritone Marco Nistico made his entrance as Dulcamara in a gorgeous vintage car, it was like bel canto had rolled into town. Slick as can be as the travelling salesman, when Nistico was onstage the audience was able to feel itself in safe and sure hands as he bewitched them with his solid and pleasing sound as surely as he bewitched the townspeople on stage. The youngest in the incredibly young cast was Meredith Lustig as Giannetta, who threw herself into the acting and finally opened up in the second act “Saria possible?”

There was so much about the production that made the singing an afterthought. At the heart of the story is the class struggle keeping the lovers apart. Adina is spoiled and rich, Nemorino the quintessential country bumpkin. Unfortunately the lines were blurred with our hero updated to a mechanic and Adina first appearing as a waitress in her own diner (Peter Sellar’s Cosi Fan Tutte, anyone?), giving the impression that perhaps she was just fickle and shallow because she and Giannetta were fast Marilyn Monroe wannabes.  Charming bits of stage business – and there were many – aside, shtick during plot points or arias distracted from the music. It brought to mind the constant fear of upstaging that is discussed so much in academic programs across the country. Indeed, and it’s shocking to say, but this entire experience brought to mind nothing so much as the title of “best graduate school production I’ve ever seen.”  Overall the audience heard beautiful voices that were perhaps not all experienced enough to really add shading and nuance to every musical figure.  It was commendable for NYCO to give this young cast a shot and while the audience certainly loved it, perhaps connoisseurs might hope for more maturity next season.
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Sarah Heisler, soprano, began the 2011 season making her debut with Bel Cantanti Opera in the role of Elvira in L’italiana in Algeri. She holds a Bachelor of Music from James Madison University, where she recently appeared in the title role in their production of Carmen. The rich-voiced former mezzo-soprano has also been seen as Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, First Lady in Die Zauberflöte, Second Witch in Dido and Aeneas and La Badessa in Suor Angelica. She has appeared for the past three seasons with the Caramoor International Music Festival, where her credits include La forza del destino, L’elisir d’amore, Semiramide, and Norma. In 2007 she received the opportunity to tour with the JMU Opera in Germany program, and sang the Erste Knabe in Die Zauberflöte in a production that toured Chemnitz and Döbeln. She will next be seen as a Young Artist at Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival, and will appear as part of the inaugural season of the BlackCreek Music Festival in Toronto, also under the baton of Maestro Maazel.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this well-written, to the point review which nailed every qualm I had about this production. I saw it when it first opened, a few years ago, but I don’t think it improved upon my second visit this past week.

    This insistence on cleverness in the production details or staging, both of which distract from the sheer beauty of the music as well as the charmlessness of much of the music, makes me only too aware of the peculiar shift in values now prevalent on our stages.

    A little goes a long way when it comes to “updating” or inadvertently trumping the music. It’s as if no one trusted the music to do all it could… and also because with the exception of the Dulcamara, none of the principals could really do a masterful-enough job of conveying the musical style (so dense in belcanto) that makes us relish Donizetti’s masterpieces.

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