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[whitespace] Donizetti Done Right

Opera San José gives 'The Elixir of Love' a properly comic staging

By Michael J. Vaughn

SAN JOSE OPERA FANS got their first look at Argentinean stage director Josemaria Condemi last weekend, and I'm guessing they'll be wanting more. Condemi pulled together a rollicking production of Donizetti's The Elixir of Love, full of general buffoonery and musically synchronized sight gags, and closed the deal by eliciting wonderful comic performances from his principals.

One look at Felice Romani's goofball libretto (a buffa blend of Cinderella and Tristan and Isolde taken from a text by Eugene Scribe), and you'd have to wonder how anyone could ever take it seriously--but some people do, at the price of dry, dull staging. No problem here. Condemi begins the irreverence right away, when his two lovers perform a pantomimed rendition of their early relationship (basically a shy guy/taunting female kind of thing) to the amusingly mismatched dramatic chords of Donizetti's overture.

Tenor Adam Flowers plays Nemorino as sort of a big, dumb jock, full of broad swings between confidence and crippling timidity, not sure of much at all except for the fact that he's in love with his Italian village's homecoming queen, Adina. Soprano Sandra Rubalcava wields her talent for the bemused look to turn Adina into a less-dangerous Carmen, manipulating the male gender (and especially Nemorino) with a giddy playfulness.

The comic kingpin arrives in the form of baritone Constantinos Yiannoudes, who makes his entrance as the local regiment leader Belcore with an hilarious choreography of struts, swaggers and poses--and a rather perverse fondness for his helmet.

Belcore's special attentions to Adina deepen Nemorino's frustration and jealousy, leading him to resort to the magical potion of the title, purchased from Dulcamara (baritone Carl King), a snake-oil salesman of the highest order ("A dentist's marvel," he proclaims of his latest concoction. "Destroys mice and bugs.")

Condemi equips his principals with plenty of good gags; for instance, instead of giving Adina a flower from the muzzle of his rifle, as the libretto has it, Belcore pulls a magician's bouquet from his sleeve. Later he welcomes Nemorino to the regiment with a genuine branding iron.

Condemi seems to have even more fun, however, with Opera San José's energetic chorus. When Nemorino gets interested in Adina's book about Tristan and Isolde, she begins a game of keep-away that passes through every pair of hands in the village. Later, the village women (led by soprano Aimee Puentes) hunt down the suddenly desirable Nemorino with the musically synchronized movements of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The largest voice on stage belongs to Yiannoudes, a booming instrument well-suited to the cocksure Belcore. The most well-deployed voice, however, belongs to Flowers, a resonant, through-the-mask lyric tenor possessed of that enigmatic ear-catching quality that the Italians call squillo. He also sports a completely breakless passage to head voice, allowing him to slip into suddenly soft, high tones for effects both comic and poignant; the latter is highlighted in Nemorino's plaintive song of hope, "Una furtiva lagrima" ("A furtive tear"). Flowers adorns the cadenza at the end of the famed aria with lovely silences--a luxury bestowed by the calm, patient presence of conductor Jun Nakabayashi.

Nakabayashi later provides the same space for Rubalcava, who responds with some shimmering, well-constructed cadenzas of her own, as well as several artfully extended sustenatos leading into the phrases of her second-act cantabile, "Prendi, per me sei libero." Rubalcava's singing, in fact, had seemed a little constrained before then, and one wishes there had been more allowances for cadenzas earlier in the opera, in keeping with the bel canto tradition.

The one principal who had trouble was King, who did well in his portrayal of Dulcamara but vocally carried a double handicap--the fact that he's a baritone singing a bass part, as well as the scientific truism that lower pitches have a harder time cutting through the orchestra to begin with.

Opera San José presents The Elixir of Love, Nov. 17-18, 21, 25, 28, 30 and Dec. 1 at 8pm, and Nov. 26 and Dec. 2 at 3pm, at the Montgomery Theater, San Carlos and Market streets, San Jose. Tickets are $40-$54. (408.437.4450 or www.operasj.org)

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From the November 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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