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The Arts
11.12.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Pat Kirk
FRUITFUL LABEL: OSJ's new production announces itself with fruit-crate artwork.

Tonic Tones

The opera crafts a crowd-pleaser by setting 'The Elixir of Love' in old San Jose

By Scott MacClelland


THE CURTAIN for Opera San Josť's new Elixir of Love looks like one of those colorful labels adorning boxes of fresh fruit in common use a half-century ago. A bright and inviting display of produce grown in Santa Clara Valley before urban sprawl swallowed up all that prime ag land offers corn, grapes, tomatoes, onions—a cornucopia of healthful nutrition. When that curtain goes up, the backdrop, seen throughout "the happiest of operas," represents several San Jose icons from the late 19th century, including the St. Joseph Basilica, the original post office (now the Museum of Art) and the electric light tower that once stood at the intersection of Market and Santa Clara streets. Sets and lighting proved the old adage that less is more. (For the evening scene, lights lit up the facades and the tower. For the late-night scene that accompanies Nemorino's Una furtive lagrima, a huge egg, made up to resemble a full moon—or did I get that backward?—was projected on the drop.)

If these touches sought to make 19th-century opera locally relevant, OSJ didn't stop there. The characters familiar in Donizetti's romantic comedy picked up historic surnames of the area as well. Nemorino carries the last name of Amadeo Giannini, the San Jose native who founded the Bank of Italy, now Bank of America. (In the story, Nemorino inherits a fortune from his uncle whose identity is now revealed.) Adina "O'Brien" descends from O'Brien's Candy Store, now "ensconced" at San Jose History Park. Dr. Dulcamara "Mirassou" peddles the celebrated elixir, naturally.

This topical adaptation started as a brainstorm of OSJ general manager Larry Hancock, who also served here as production director and clever writer of the "alright" supertitles (you betcha). Reading those titles, however, was made difficult by all the upstaging comedy and sight gags going on between and among the principals, supers and dancing choristers. From all the audience giggles and laughter, one could tell well in advance that a standing O would reward the performers after the big produce label came down at the end. Stage director Dianna Shuster deserves shameless blame for these winning shenanigans.

But, of course, there was much more than comedy. Anthony Quartuccio's orchestra consistently found the right pace, pulsing merrily along or wistfully sighing as called for by the action. Once near the end of Act 2, and only for a moment, it got loud enough to drown out the voices, another reminder of the California Theatre's efficient acoustics. Except for Joseph Rawley's booming bass-baritone as Dulcamara and Rebecca Davis' spinto soprano as Adina, the other principals offered smaller vocal production. Rawley, making his company debut, is an obvious veteran actor as well as singer. Davis, new in the resident company, also brings a wealth of experience, and sang a beautiful performance, with a touch of fatigue on the voice only in the closing moments of last Sunday's matinee.

Tenor Michael Dailey, as Nemorino, and baritone Daniel Cilli, as Sgt. Belcore, present similarly scaled vocal production. As actors, they are still a bit stiff, which is, of course, the reason they are residents (by definition accomplished singers who are here to get stage experience). In their Act 2 duet, where the swaggering Belcore recruits his rival, their voices were perfectly matched. For his part, Cilli played the ideal narcissist, appearing to succeed with Adina through his antics, including offering her a bouquet from the barrel of his rifle. In his sorrowful "A furtive tear" aria, Dailey won bravos for his lyric tenor and gorgeous, expressive phrasing. Soprano Jillian Boye chewed a bit of scenery as Giannetta, and cheers once again for David Kurtenbach's chorus whose acting skills seem to get better with each production.


THE ELIXIR OF LOVE, an Opera San Josť production, plays Nov. 13, 15, 18 and 21 at 8pm and Nov. 16 and 23 at 3pm at the California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $69–$91. (408.437.4450)


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