By Harvey Steiman
Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.
Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of San Francisco Opera, Conductor Bruno Campanella, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 29.10.2008 (HS)
Adina: Inva Mula (soprano)
Nemorino: Ramón Vargas (tenor)
Belcore: Giorgio Caoduro (baritone)
Dulcamara: Alessandro Corbelli (bass)
Giannetta: Ji Young Yang (soprano)
Nemorino: Ramón Vargas
In the very first scene of The Elixir of Love, re-set to a small town in nearby Napa Valley instead of “a small Italian village,” we meet Nemorino scooping ice cream for a gaggle of children. From the vintage of his ice cream truck and the costumes, it’s around 1915. He sees Adina on the town bandstand, wearing a sash proclaiming her “Queen of the Harvest” and signing up townspeople for library cards. He prepares a strawberry ice cream cone for her, but in delivering it he falls face-first and the ice cream tumbles to the ground. He picks it up, balances it on the cone and sheepishly offers it to her. She laughs and turns away.
In one deft moment, director James Robinson establishes the setting and the personalities of the two protagonists. Nemorino, played by tenor Ramón Vargas, is awkward and shy, and clearly infatuated with Adina, played by Inva Mula. She may be bookish but the town adores her. You can tell by the way they follow her around. The way she smiles at Nemorino, you can tell that she likes him but considers him unworthy. She’s a dish and she knows it. It’s only the first of many delightful and telling moments in this charming, colorful and apt production.
The Act I Set
Using painted flats and a Victorian bandstand as a unit set, the staging depicts a bucolic Napa Valley before its current incarnation as a luxury wine region. Those who know the Frank Loesser musical, also set in a early-20th-century Napa Valley, might be forgiven for thinking of “The Most Happy Fella.” In this story, infatuated with Adina, he buys an elixir from a traveling quack, supposedly like the one Isolde gave Tristan in the story Adina reads aloud in Scene I. Before the elixir (actually red wine) can work, Adina agrees to marry the army sergeant, Belcore, who rolls into town with a squad of recruits. It becomes clear, however, that Adina is only doing it to get to Nemorino, who joins the army to get the money to buy more of the elixir. Meanwhile, the whole town hears the rumor that he has inherited a fortune from a rich uncle, and when all the women flock to him, he’s convinced that it’s the elixir at work. In the end, Adina chooses him and pays off the sergeant to get Nemorino out of the army.
Vargas has a clear, high, lyric sound that’s ideal for Nemorino. He doesn’t play him as a bumpkin; he is just awkward and has low self-esteem. Mula has the slim, adorable looks and the light, creamy soprano to make an audience fall in love with her character. She knows who she is, and clearly is accustomed to getting her way.
Each character enters with a flourish. Dr. Dulcamara, the quack medicine man, played here by bass Alessandro Corbelli, arrives on a motorcycle with a sidecar. He places his suitcase full of elixir bottles on a small folding table, not the elaborate wagon seen in other productions. Corbelli does not overplay the character, either. You can tell he’s a slick con man, but he’s charming about it, not blatant. And he sings the music with spot-on articulation and diction. A team of leather-helmeted football players precedes Belcore, who practices plays with them as he sings his entrance aria. Baritone Giorgio Caoduro plays the character as pompous but totally unaware of it. He is just the school sports star a few years older. He also displays the best coloratura in the cast.
But the stars are Vargas and Mula. In the opera’s most famous aria, “Una furtiva lagrima,” Vargas spun out a gorgeous filament of sound, keeping the pulse of the music going while conveying the character’s joy at seeing a telltale tear on Adina’s face, evidence that she does indeed care for him. Mula, for her part, sang with youthful ease, creating a series of touching moments with Vargas as their relationship circles in on its denouement.
In the pit, conductor Bruno Campanella led a straightforward effort that sparkled just enough to keep everything moving along nicely, though not quite with the élan of the best performances of this familiar opera.
This being San Francisco, food is a running theme in this staging. Nemorino makes a sundae for Adina, which they share during their Act I duet, suggesting that Adina really might have feelings for him. Later, Adina idly snitches a few maraschino cherries from his truck. To drown his sorrows after Adina leaves Belcore before their wedding is completed the sergeant sits down to eat a whole pie during his Act II lament. He chooses it from an array of pastries brought by the townsfolk.
In the end, having won Adina, Nemorino repaints the generic “ice cream” sign atop his truck to say “Nemorino’s Ice Cream,” indicating that he finally has some self-esteem. And he definitely has become the most happy fella.
Pictures © Terrence McCarthy