Donizetti’s ‘Elixir of Love’ is a busy TV rom-com at Annapolis Opera Company

Though there were stretches of sublime, finely-honed comedy, the effect was all too much happening at once.

What do you get when you cross an opera buffo structure with bel canto singing? Look no further than a night of Gaetano Donizetti, a composer who “dropped some fiendishly fun knowledge” in a work that hit the stage in 1832. Donizetti and two composers-in-arms — Rossini and Bellini — were something like the Three Musketeers of Italian opera, when Donizetti hit pay dirt after only six weeks of furious writing and brought not just a hit comic opera to the stage but melodious tunes that set the “beautiful voice” exquisitely and have served the opera canon ever since.

Well, maybe L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) is not in the top 10 operas of all time, or, arguably, even the top 30, but it was a darn good choice for Annapolis Opera to end their season with this. It came on the heels of Glory Denied, a contemporary opera about a powerful but darkly disturbing chapter of our history in a story about the longest-held POW of the Vietnam War. Given the world today, and the echoes of war abroad and chaos at home, we could all use some light, chuckling fare to transport us. And transport us they did indeed!

Brian Wallin as Nemorino and the Annapolis Opera chorus in ‘The Elixir of Love.’ Photo by Mike Halbig.

Annapolis Opera Company did not cleave to the original setting — rural Spain of the early 18th century. Stage Director Ben Robinson transposed the story of a wealthy landowning lady and the peasant who pursues her relentlessly into a modern rom-com being filmed on a studio sound stage sometime in the 1980s. In lieu of a pastoral setting, the stage is crowded with two setup cameras, boom mics, and lots of crew members tending to all the technical needs that make up television production.

Of course, in this choice, we lose some of the high-stakes class distinctions. Instead, we get American capitalism fueled by what Joni Mitchell called “star-making machinery” — though not so much of popular song but the media frenzy surrounding Hollywood’s “the industry.” What foils our lovers for a spell is Adina’s Hollywood’s “it girl” while Nemorino is “just” a cameraman.

The character of Adina is one of the TV network’s stars, and so is Belcore (not a soldier as in the original). Véronique Filloux plays Adina as a savvy modern woman riding the roller coaster of fame, and, for a long time in the action a little careless with her affections. Kyle Oliver as Belcore plays the matinee idol type very nicely — think Brad Pitt or Denzel Washington before they got old — getting in some well-paid TV work but suddenly, in the middle of this shoot, on his way “across town” to star in a war picture being made.

Nemorino is the love-sick calf, mooning after Adina, stuck behind his work on a studio camera. Tenor Brian Wallin plays him as a kind of Disney Eeyore sadsack, batting his eyes and sidling up to his unattainable dream. He goofily keeps losing the action he’s supposed to be following on camera so enthralled is he with the show’s female star. I fell for him hook, line, and sinker, and you too might want to coax this Nemorino to follow you home like a stray pooch.

But there are a few sticky issues in the production that left more than a handful of the audience members unsettled. I’ll point out that, while the singers are faithful to singing Donizetti’s score in Italian, the surtitles are so chock-a-block filled with anachronisms, they become distracting. Belcore’s line “I’m going to the SAG lounge for a while” deserves its laugh, but there are others that miss the mark. Meanwhile, the poor original librettist, Felice Romani, doesn’t even get a mention in the program, except buried in a note by the stage director.

The cast and chorus of ‘The Elixir of Love.’ Photo by Michael Halbig.

Opera, like classic drama, tends to attract a school of directors devoted to reimagined updates and what is generally termed “concept approaches” to productions. Fair enough. But Robinson’s staging has so much going on in the first act it becomes hard to follow. First there’s the character of Gianetta, played by Denique Isaac. Standing tall, in six-inch heels, head and shoulders above everyone else on stage, she also was costumed in fire-engine-red pants. It was hard not to watch her. Many people around me were confused for quite some time, thinking she was the lead Adina. Isaac was clearly encouraged to steal focus, flicking her hair like the newest hot babe on the set and cutting into the action whenever possible. But who is she?

Similarly, the 25 chorus members were given full license to make up their business and fill in individual storylines. The effect was all too much happening at once. The Annapolis Chorus is clearly family, and I love filling a stage with specifics of burgeoning life, but, at some moments, I longed for the MET’s HD editor to cut to a closeup in order to focus our attention on the central storyline. With surtitles, a giant changing billboard of multiple images and camera angles, and a chorus with separate objectives darting around the stage, the picture skittered toward running amok.

There were stretches of sublime, finely-honed comedy. Singer-actor Timothy Mix is a master of both physical comedy and building zany characters. As the quack doctor Dulcamara (aka Production Company Caterer), he’s the salesman guy of fake cure-all potions, and he nails the endless parade of the latest TV fix-everything ads. He is always about to head out of town, but he finds the next sucker in Nemorino.

There’s also a deliciously choreographed scene with Nemorino crawling on his belly to touch Adina, followed hysterically by a lineup of others trying to pull him out of the way while remaining off-camera so as not to ruin the shot. It’s farce at its best. There is also a screamingly funny scene when Nemorino has had too much of Dulcamara’s potion and gets drunk on what is actually cheap Bordeaux, while a gaggle of girls, having heard the rumor that the goofy cameraman has just inherited a fortune, suddenly find him exceedingly attractive and throw themselves at him.

Happily, everything seems to settle into focus in Act 2. Staging is not so busy. The relationships and the resolution of conflicts build artfully.

Brian Wallin as Nemorino, Véronique Filloux as Adina, Kyle Oliver as Belcore, and the Annapolis Opera chorus in ‘The Elixir of Love.’ Photo by Robert Young.

Artistic and Music Director Craig Keir has wrestled back Donizetti’s opera and conducts with assuredness to focus on not just the prowess of the composition but the emotional agility in the writing where we can delight in both Donizetti’s comedic sensibilities and his keen understanding of communicating the pathos of love. Throughout this act, we can gorge ourselves happily on the bel canto singing. Soprano Filloux delights with her dazzling runs. Tenor Wallin breaks our hearts open with his long, elegant, and beautiful legato lines. Baritone Oliver’s rich dark notes are more satisfying and to our taste than any Bordeaux elixir, and Mix’s daredevil galloping patter, with never a syllable lost, keeps us gasping in amazement.

Donizetti composed some of his most beautiful writing in this last act, including the most famous heart-wrenching aria by a tenor, “Una furtiva lachrima,” accompanied by harp and oboe, and a final extended gorgeous duet when our lovers are allowed at last to profess their love for each other.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

The Elixir of Love runs only two performances, ending March 17, 2024, with a final matinee at 3 p.m. It is presented by Annapolis Opera performing in Maryland Hall, 801 Chase Street, Annapolis, MD. For the schedule and to purchase tickets go online or contact the Box Office at (410-267-8135). Tickets range from $28–$100.)

The program for The Elixir of Love is online here.

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Susan Galbraith
Playwright, librettist, songwriter, director, theater reviewer, and actress Susan Galbraith has worked in London, Singapore, New York, Minneapolis, Prague, and Boston before settling in DC. Her resume includes working with international directors including Peter Brooks, Miřenka Čechová, and Peter Sellars; choreographer Takao Tomono; and rock-and-roll superstar Prince. After moving to Washington, she helped found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and in the past decade led the development of original works across the spectrum of music-theater including musicals and opera. For over a decade, she was also pleased to support the greater Washington theater community as a happy member of the reviewing team of DC Theater Scene under Lorraine Treanor. She holds a BA from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and two graduate degrees, including a Fulbright fellowship. She now lives in Kalorama with three cats, a happy Samoyed, and a most understanding partner. You can read more of her theater writing here.


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