16 March 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — L’ELISIR D’AMORE (J. Burns, D. Blalock, G. Gerbrandt, B. Banion, E. Mandzik; Piedmont Opera, 15 March 2019)

IN REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE, staged by Piedmont Opera in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, March 2019 [Graphic © by Piedmont Opera]GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): L’elisir d’amoreJodi Burns (Adina), David Blalock (Nemorino), Gregory Gerbrandt (Belcore), Brian Banion (Dulcamara), Eliza Mandzik (Giannetta); Piedmont Opera Chorus, Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Cara Consilvio, Director; Piedmont Opera, UNCSA Stevens Center, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 15 March 2019]

When attempting to analyze the foibles of operatic history, it can be difficult to discern why one work in a composer’s œuvre achieved greater prominence than its brethren. With hindsight influenced by pioneering performances and recordings of forgotten works, it is possible to hear a piece like Gioachino Rossini’s La gazza ladra and wonder why it was for so long eclipsed by Il barbiere di Siviglia. Why has La sonnambula been welcomed into the international repertory whilst La straniera has been heard only a few times since its composer’s death?

Rarely is a piece’s widespread acceptance by the public solely a product of good fortune. Espousal by a celebrated singer or conductor has often improved an opera’s lot, but there are almost always other elements that contribute to a work’s continuous or rediscovered allure. This is especially true of the operas of Gaetano Donizetti, the least remembered of which wield musical and dramatic felicities that qualify them for renewed interest. Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore requires no reappraisal, however, never having relinquished its place in the international repertory. Bringing the much-loved tale of the free-spirited Adina’s entanglements with the unpretentious Nemorino, the arrogant Belcore, and the irrepressible Dulcamara to Winston-Salem’s historic Stevens Center, Piedmont Opera’s production of L’elisir d’amore legitimized the opera’s reputation by earning the affection it is still capable of inspiring 187 years after its first performance.

Premièred at Milan’s Teatro della Canobbiana on 12 May 1832, L’elisir d’amore was the third of four operas by Donizetti that were first performed in 1832. Its companions—Fausta, Ugo, conte di Parigi, and Sancia di Castiglia—are now only occasionally performed, but L’elisir, followed in December 1833 by one of Donizetti’s most successful and enduringly popular serious operas, Lucrezia Borgia, was beloved from its start. The composer’s melodic genius was at its freshest during the creation of L’elisir and was unquestionably stimulated by the wit of Felice Romani’s libretto.

Created by Sabine Heinefetter and Gianbattista Genero, the rôles of Adina and Nemorino have captivated generations of artists and audiences, the former having been enthusiastically appropriated by Maria Malibran and innumerable singers of varying degrees of vocal suitability. [Less helpfully, Malibran discarded Donizetti’s cabaletta for Adina in Act Two and inserted in its place ‘Nel dolce incanto,’ a superfluous piece of long-debated provenance that is now thought to be Malibran’s own work and was sung by Dame Joan Sutherland in her studio recording of L’elisir.] Furthermore, L’elisir has in Nemorino’s ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ and Adina’s ‘Prendi per me sei libero’ a sequence of the kind occurring in many of Händel’s operas in which the manic romp abruptly halts when emotions of life-altering importance emerge from the fray. Piedmont Opera’s performance facilitated a genuinely moving depiction of these moments of unaffected feeling, revealing the poignant sincerity at the heart of the opera’s timeless magnetism.

Directed by Cara Consilvio, Piedmont Opera’s production of L’elisir d’amore was visually appealing, genuinely funny, and touching without being cartoonish, foolish, or embarrassingly sentimental. The pacing of the opera’s action exploited the expert comic timing of the production team and the cast, incorporating a whirlwind of physicality that rarely interfered with the science of singing. Malabar Limited’s costumes and Martha Ruskai’s wigs and makeup similarly enhanced the production’s entertainment for the eyes without lessening its beauty for the ears. Eduardo Sicango’s scenic designs, originally devised for Virginia Opera, and Norman Coates’s lighting created a detailed but never distracting setting for the story, following Donizetti’s and Romani’s directions with complementary fidelity and imagination. The effectiveness of a production of L’elisir d’amore relies in large part upon equilibrium: accentuating either slapstick silliness or saccharine melodrama reduces the opera’s power to connect with audiences’ sensibilities. Piedmont Opera’s production attempted to make the piece neither a Molière farce nor a Shakespeare comedy. By allowing Adina and Nemorino to be who Donizetti and Romani intended them to be, this staging confirmed the wisdom of trusting an opera’s creators’ instincts.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone BRIAN BANION as Dottor Dulcamara in Piedmont Opera's March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © by Mariedith Appanaitis / Piedmont Opera]The doctor is in: bass-baritone Brian Banion as Dottor Dulcamara in Piedmont Opera’s March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Mariedith Appanaitis / Piedmont Opera]

Piedmont Opera’s General Director and Principal Conductor James Allbritten conducted the performance with eloquence and panache, avoiding the practice of approaching the score as music that leads into and out of ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ that disfigures some readings of the piece. Rather, Allbritten was attentive to the inherent musical logic of each scene, fostering dramatic continuity by recognizing the momentum with which Donizetti infused the score. The Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra followed his beat impeccably and played with little of the sloppiness often heard in this music—music that is sometimes erroneously dismissed as mere unchallenging, unimaginative accompaniment. The wind playing was especially commendable, the lively writing for trumpet preceding Dulcamara’s arrival and the gorgeous bassoon obbligato in ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ executed with skill and brio. Throughout the performance, the orchestra’s rhythmic ebullience and intonation garnered admiration. Comic operas can be more difficult to bring off than tragedies, but Allbritten and his colleagues in the pit projected the same sense of enjoyment that emanated from the stage.

Piedmont Opera’s choristers also embodied the good humor that bursts from almost every page of Donizetti’s score. Establishing the mood of the opera’s first scene, they sang ‘Bel conforto al mietitore’ charmingly, and their voicing of ‘Che vuol dire codesta suonata’ conveyed the appropriate excited anticipation. In Act Two, the choristers added to the gaiety of Adina’s banquet with their cheerful singing of ‘Cantiamo, facciam brindisi a sposi così amabili.’ Later, the ladies’ singing of ‘Saria possibile?’ upon hearing the news of Nemorino’s unexpected inheritance was the musical equivalent of raised eyebrows and suspicious shrugs. Choral singing is rarely a factor in a spectator’s decision to purchase a ticket for a performance of L’elisir d’amore, but the spectators for this L’elisir d’amore were treated to choral singing of a standard that reinforced the overall excellence of the production.

The rôle of Adina’s confidante Giannetta was delightfully sung by soprano Eliza Mandzik, an alumna of Providence College and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Voicing the part’s music with a bright timbre and easy command of the range, she created a three-dimensional character with her few lines in the opera’s opening scene. Alert to every detail of the action, this Giannetta never disappeared into the crowd. Informing Belcore of the arrival of orders from his superior with a sly voicing of ‘Signor sargente,’ the soprano intoned her lines in the subsequent quartet with the bemusement of a concerned party just distant enough from the emotional collisions to observe and comment on them without fear of becoming collateral damage. Mandzik’s conspiratorial utterance of Giannetta’s ‘Possibilissimo’ in response to the ladies’ expression of doubt of the truth of the rumor of Nemorino’s vast inheritance in Act Two made it clear that she was a savvy gossip who vetted her sources of information. She flirted with the newly-rich but still befuddled Nemorino with the coquetry of an ambitious young lady already picturing herself leaving the altar on the arm of a wealthy husband. A Giannetta should sound like an Adina in training rather than an overactive comprimaria, and Mandzik’s performance was that of a leading lady honing her craft.

Glances at Donizetti’s score and Romani’s libretto can leave the impression that the rôle of the egotistical, chauvinistic, and disarmingly dashing sergeant Belcore is indestructibly straightforward. To the contrary, two centuries of performance history document wrongheaded realizations of the part that have marred many productions of the opera. The foremost dramatic challenge of the rôle is that an effective Belcore should be smug and self-obsessed but also suave and mesmerizing. Vocally and temperamentally, baritone Gregory Gerbrandt was a world-class Belcore, as capable of inducing swoons as of brandishing a sword. The character’s larghetto cavatina in Act One, ‘Come Paride vezzoso,’ received a debonair performance from Gerbrandt, his technique making easy going of the florid writing and demanding tessitura despite marginal unevenness that dissipated as the performance progressed. This electrifying artist lent diverting swagger to Belcore’s lines in the trio with Adina and Nemorino and the quartet in which the sergeant reacts to his marching orders, exhibiting the character’s priggishness without being unpleasant.

This Belcore arrived at his wedding feast in Act Two in high spirits, unmistakably relishing the notion of being an ardent if none-too-faithful spouse. His exchanges with his intended bride and the wedding guests exuded the confidence of a soldier for whom affairs of the heart are won by strategizing akin to that employed on the battlefield, an attitude that was still more apparent in the duet in which he duplicitously—but in this performance not cruelly—goaded Nemorino into enlisting in his regiment with the promise of a signing bonus that will finance the new recruit’s love-elixir therapy. In the opera’s final scene, Gerbrandt was a Belcore who accepted defeat manfully, certain of his undamaged irresistibility to members of the opposite sex. The foremost marvel of Gerbrandt’s performance was the confidence with which he put the bel in Belcore’s canto, but his superlative acting provided a frame that perfectly suited his vocal portrait of the seductive sergeant.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor DAVID BLALOCK as Nemorino, soprano JODI BURNS as Adina, and baritone GREGORY GERBRANDT as Belcore in Piedmont Opera's March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © Mariedith Appanaitis / Piedmont Opera]Three’s a crowd: (from left to right) tenor David Blalock as Nemorino, soprano Jodi Burns as Adina, and baritone Gregory Gerbrandt as Belcore in Piedmont Opera’s March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Mariedith Appantaitis / Piedmont Opera]

Bass-baritone Brian Banion was the frighteningly menacing Sparafucile in Piedmont Opera’s 2015 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto [reviewed here], a part that shares little more than a vocal range and an Italian text with Donizetti’s Dulcamara. The uninhibited dramatic involvement that served Banion well in Rigoletto was no less valuable L’elisir d’amore. Making his entrance in Act One with a commanding account of the maestoso cavatina ‘Udite, udite, o rustici,’ splendidly conquering its profusion of top Es, Banion enlivened the too-often-clichéd Dulcamara with reminiscences of Jerry Lewis’s comedy and Sesto Bruscantini’s singing. The cunning of his utterance of his lines in the duet with Nemorino was embodied by his mercurial articulation of ‘Ah! sì, sì, capisco, intendo.’ Banion’s caricature of the dilapidated senator in the barcarola with Adina at the start of Act Two, ‘Io son ricco e tu sei bella,’ was riotously funny; more so, in fact, because his vocalism was so good. The hilarity of Dulcamara’s parts in first the madcap quartet and then his duet with Adina was again heightened by the bass-baritone’s fantastic singing. If any doubt remained about Dulcamara’s pivotal rôle in the intoxicating comedic potency of this L’elisir d’amore, it was swept aside by the vigor of Banion’s voicing of ‘Ei corregge ogni difetto’ in the opera’s finale. A few words of the rapid-fire patter challenged him, but Banion’s Dulcamara peddled the eponymous elixir with savvy that Madison Avenue would clamor to bottle.

A resident of Winston-Salem and an alumna of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, soprano Jodi Burns returned to Piedmont Opera, with which company she shone in Kevin Puts’s Silent Night, to portray the fiercely independent heroine of L’elisir d’amore. It was immediately evident that her Adina was fanciful but honorable, traits that shaped her account of the andantino cavatina ‘Della crudele Isotta il bel Tristano ardea,’ the ascents to the top Bs adroitly managed. Burns delivered the cantabile ‘Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera’ in the duet with Nemorimo with dulcet tones, and her singing in the succession of ensembles that propel Act One to its close was winsome if compromised in a handful of passages by uncertain pitch and fiorature that were not ideally tidy, issues with which she found little assistance from the pit.

Fetchingly impersonating the gondoliera opposite Dulcamara’s dentally-deficient senator in the banquet scene in Act Two, Burns voiced ‘Qual onore! un senatore me d’amore supplicar’ with charisma that recalled Mirella Freni’s singing of this music. The voice soared in the quicksilver exchanges of the quartet. Burns dazzled in the duet with Dulcamara, suffusing ‘Quanto amore! Ed io, spietata! tormentai si nobil cor!’ with a depth of feeling that indicated the profundity of Adina’s affection for Nemorino. Her performance of the aria ‘Prendi per me sei libero,’ crowned with a strong top C, was superb—her finest singing of the evening. Regrettably, Adina’s cabaletta ‘Il mio rigor dimentica’ was not performed, making the transition from Adina’s confession of her true feelings for Nemorino to the final scene seem slightly perfunctory. Burns nonetheless created a fully-rounded character, and her Adina’s inherent integrity made the pure-hearted Nemorino’s love for her more credible that it is in some productions. Inflicting upon the rôle none of the cooing and crooning to which it is often subjected, Burns also sang Adina’s music uncommonly attractively.

IN REVIEW: tenor DAVID BLALOCK as Nemorimo (left) and soprano JODI BURNS as Adina (right) in Piedmont Opera's March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © by Mariedith Appanaitis / Piedmont Opera]When a man loves a woman: tenor David Blalock as Nemorino (left) and soprano Jodi Burns as Adina (right) in Piedmont Opera’s March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Mariedith Appantaitis / Piedmont Opera]

Making his rôle début as Nemorino and his Piedmont Opera début in this production, North Carolina-born tenor David Blalock personified the humility and sensitivity that the character should possess. From the first bars of his larghetto cavatina ‘Quanto è bella, quanto è cara,’ Blalock demonstrated a connection with the rôle that intensified with the cavatina’s transition to allegretto. The effects of first-night nerves were discernible in a slight sense of tentativeness in his first scene and a few very brief losses of intonational focus, but the limpidity of Blalock’s plea of ‘Una parola, o Adina’ was ample compensation. Launched with an eager enunciation of ‘Voglio dire...lo stupendo elisir che desta amore,’ pure joy permeated his vocalism in the duet with Dulcamara. Confiding that the sole purpose of his experiment with the elixir was winning one cruel lady’s heart, his statement of ‘Ah! dottor, vi do parola ch’io berrò per una sola’ was unusually affecting, Blalock’s mastery of the passaggio-punishing G4s accentuating the plangency of his timbre. In the duet with Adina and the trio in which Belcore joins them, the tenor’s submissive demeanor evoked sympathy for Nemorino’s plight. Blalock’s singing of ‘Adina, credimi, te ne scongiuro’ in the quartet was a highlight of his performance, the voice beautiful and movingly plaintive.

Nemorino’s duet with Belcore in Act Two is one of the finest pieces in the score, and Blalock’s ecstatic interjection of ‘Venti scudi!’ was followed by a tender account of ‘Ai perigli della guerra.’ In the rollicking quartet, the tenor sang ‘Dell’elisir mirabile bevuto ho in abbondanza’ fervently. The bittersweet romanza ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ is one of opera’s most famous tenor arias and a formidable test of singers’ technical acumen. Nemorino’s music has no applause-inciting top notes like Edgardo’s written—but almost never sung—E♭5 in Lucia di Lammermoor or Tonio’s top Cs in La fille fu régiment, but the vocal line requires imperturbable concentration. The silence that filled the auditorium as Blalock sang the piece was a testament to the nobility of his performance. Phrasing with total comprehension of music and text, he fully realized the aria’s expressive potential. Finally winning Adina’s love, this Nemorino’s bliss was visible in every movement and expression—and in the solid top B♭ with which he ended the opera. In his first interpretation of the rôle, Blalock displayed an understanding of the character that some singers never attain. Nemorino describes himself as ‘un idiota,’ but his ignorance is that of innocence and inexperience. Blalock’s characterization emphasized the young man’s simplicity, which he never confused with stupidity. Singing so sweetly and honestly, it was inevitable that Blalock’s Nemorino would win Adina’s love: the audience’s collective heart was in the palm of his hand from the first sight of his gentle, guileless smile.

Bel canto operas are sometimes described as ridiculous plots set to beautiful tunes with meager musical substance. There is a bit of accuracy in that assessment, especially when bel canto is examined from a post-Wagnerian perspective, but is life always sensible? Does love always advance with linear orderliness? In L’elisir d’amore, Donizetti imitated the absurdities of life and love with graceful, mirthful melodies. Relying upon the fecundity of the composer’s musical ingenuity, Piedmont Opera’s L’elisir d’amore compellingly provided the substance this sparkling score is accused of lacking.