The two works that began Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2021-22 season could hardly contrast more. The first opening, on September 17, was Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth: Dark, brutal, gory, filled with lust for power, rage and revenge. The second, which took place this past Sunday afternoon, was The Elixir of Love, a comic opera by Gaetano Donizetti: Bright, airy, filled with charm and totally huggable.
This is an opera to sit back in those new comfy seats at the Lyric Opera House and enjoy, not reflect (as in Macbeth) on the fatal flaws of failed humans.
Debuted in 1832 with its Italian title L’Elisir d’Amore and originally set in the late 18th century, the opera gets updated to a resort on the Italian coast in the 1950s. All of the action takes place on the patio of Hotel Adina, named for the proprietress and female lead, and the bright and sunny set design makes you feel—like the tourists who make up the almost omnipresent chorus—that you are on holiday.
The frothy plot is something of a mashup of a romantic sitcom and the Wizard of Oz. But the story is secondary to the music, especially the voices. The Elixir of Love, directed by Daniel Slater, is in the tradition of bel canto—beautiful singing—and this staging lives up to that description.
Four characters dominate the stage in this opera. Adina, the well-to-do hotelier played by soprano Ailyn Pérez, is adored by a poor waiter, Nemorino (tenor Charles Castronova), but smugly dismisses his expressions of love. When Belcore, a vainglorious Italian Navy captain played by resonant baritone Joshua Hopkins, arrives at the head of a group of Vespa-riding sailors, Adina accepts his impromptu proposal of marriage while Nemorino panics.
Enter, by hot air balloon, Dulcamara—played by bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen—a peddler of phony miracle cures (like Professor Marvel, who in Dorothy Gale’s tornado-induced fever dream becomes the Wizard of Oz). Earlier, Adina had entertained her guests by reading about Tristan and Isolde, who fell in love after drinking a potion. When Nemorino asks Dulcamara if he has a potion like Isolde’s, the “doctor” knows he has an easy mark.
Dulcamara sells Nemorino a “potion” that is actually a bottle of cheap wine, telling him that it will not take effect for 24 hours—enough time for Dulcamara and his assistant to leave town before the dupe figures out he’s been had. Nemorino polishes off the bottle, gets soused, and decides he’ll play hard to get with Adina, until the potion he thinks he’s consumed kicks in (this scene near the end of the first act includes a funny bit with Nemorino windmilling his arm like Elvis Presley).
This initially backfires, as the angered Adina insists that Belcore marry her before he fulfills his orders to ship out the next day. But after some plot twists that involve Nemorino enlisting in the Navy for a bonus that he spends on more “elixir,” it all ends well. When Adina sees all the women in the town competing for Nemorino’s affection (they’ve learned that Nemorino has just inherited a fortune, which he doesn’t know at that point), she realizes that she has strong feelings for Nemorino.
After Nemorino sings the beautiful and poignant love aria Una furtiva lagrima (A Furtive Tear), he and Adina pledge their love; Belcore accepts the outcome with his healthy ego unbruised, comforted that he has the pick of all of the world’s women; and Dulcamara makes a bundle selling his wares to the hotel guests before taking off in the balloon, convinced that the plonk he bottled really was a love potion.
While all four leads have wonderful voices, Pérez and Castronova had truly extraordinary moments, with their voices rising first gradually, then exploding into towering crescendos. Bel canto, indeed.
It is notable that the chorus, to an extent unusual in opera, was in the thick of much of the action, even dancing some cheorographed steps with the principals.
Conductor Enrique Mazzola, newly installed this year as the Lyric’s music director, continues to receive thunderous applause from the audience. This was one of those operas, though, when the orchestra’s role was to carry the tune and stay out of the way of the vocalists, at which they succeeded very well.
If you are free at 2pm today, there are lots worse ways to spend a couple of hours than attending the matinee of The Elixir of Love. Tickets ranging from $49 to $299 can be purchased here. This opera will also be performed at 7:30pm Saturday, October 2, and at 7pm on Tuesday, October 5, and Friday, October 8; visit the Lyric Opera site for ticket information.