OPERA REVIEW: Wine, Love, and Song in Elixir of Love at Opera Philadelphia

A crowd pleasing, musically expert production of Donizetti's delightful comedy closes the season in style.

Dimitri Pittas as Nemorino in Elixir of Love at Opera Philadelphia. (Photo by Kelly & Massa)

Dimitri Pittas as Nemorino in Elixir of Love at Opera Philadelphia. (Photo by Kelly & Massa)

Everybody is crazy about L’Elisir d’Amore (Elixir of Love as it’s styled here, though sung in Italian). Opera companies love Donizetti’s delightful comedy because it can be cast with young lyric voices (fewer demands here for virtuoso coloratura than in most bel canto operas), and seats are easy to fill. Audiences love its charming boy-meets-girl plot — but even more, the stream of glorious melody, of which the tenor’s heart-stopping “Una furtiva lagrima” is a perennial favorite.

All these are amply displayed in Opera Philadelphia’s musically expert, visually appealing production, which closes out the season with style and heart.

Director Stephen Lawless has updated the action to post World War II, and the feel of this village and its populace evokes Italian film comedies that starred Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. A little more of the earthy sensuality of those movies — and a little less schtick — would be welcome, but Lawless provides a lovely setting and many amusing details. My favorite of his visuals is a tiny red sports car that our hero, Nemorino (here he’s a car mechanic) seems to love almost as much as the fair Adina. (Don’t worry — he won’t have to choose.)

The car gives tenor Dimitri Pittas a lot to work with. Pittas is almost everything I want in a Nemorino — exactly the right goofy-cute good looks and manner, a wonderfully lively stage face, and easy physicality. He makes every word and mood come to life. His bright, forwardly-placed tenor projects very well, though the upper register has an edge — but if his “Una furtiva lagrima” isn’t meltingly lovely, it is uncommonly embedded in his total performance, linked to both character and action.

Tonal beauty certainly is Sarah Shafer’s calling card, especially in the upper register, where her Adina has many exquisitely lovely phrases. The quality is more silvery sheen than Italianate warmth — ideally, Adina needs both — and next to Pittas, Shafer cuts a pretty but rather neutral stage figure.

Craig Verm plays Belcore, the handsome officer who imagines himself to be god’s gift to women (and Adina in particular) — his sharp comic timing and sturdy voice suit the role. Katrina Thurman is a lively Gianetta, well-paired with Shafer — it’s not her fault that Lawless loads on her some of the least effective funny business here.

As usual, most of the broadest comedy is given to Dulcamara (sung by bass Kevin Burdette), the charlatan purveyor of the titular elixir. Burdette sings well, and throws himself skillfully into a characterization that sometimes looks like one of the gangsters from Kiss Me, Kate — he’s an audience favorite, but for me, less would be more.

The real stars of Opera Philadelphia’s Elisir are conductor (and company Music Director) Corrado Rovaris and the orchestra — this is a propulsive yet wonderfully airy reading of a great score (note in particular the characterful wind playing in the orchestra), which also captures the underlying sentiment.

In the end, there will be smiles as well as that furtive tear (or two) — which is as it should be.

The Elixir of Love has performances through May 8. For more information, visit the Opera Philadelphia website.