With the clouds of war storming more fiercely over Europe than at any time since World War II, and with COVID hysteria about to enter its third year, who could resist the promise of a panacea? L’Elisir d’Amore, Gaetano Donizetti’s bubbly, light-hearted comedy, which the composer dashed off in just six weeks in 1832, offers just such a cure-all, courtesy of a quack doctor who needs two lengthy patter arias to list all the benefits of his purported elixir. Central to the comical plot, which follows the bumpkin Nemorino’s attempt to woo the sophisticated Adina away from a more promising suitor, the elixir is also said to be a love potion of the same variety that united Tristan and Isolde. The beverage, however, turns out to be a simple Bordeaux wine. Consuming it allows Nemorino to feign a cool indifference that melts Adina’s heart, while news of an inheritance makes him popular with the other village girls.
The free state of Florida might be the best place these days to indulge in comic plots involving cures for disease that melt into sunny love stories. As the state’s arts communities enjoy fuller audiences than those in more tightly regulated northern venues, Palm Beach Opera has staged a brilliant production combining Constantinos Kritikos’s simple but evocative sets borrowed from the New Orleans Opera and Johan Engels’s bright costumes from the Washington National Opera. To judge by all the Italian tricolor flags, the setting has been moved from the opera’s original Basque milieu (the libretto was written by the French playwright Eugène Scribe and set by Daniel Auber for his opera Le Philtre) to the newly unified nineteenth-century Italian nation-state. But the political realities take a back seat to the romantic drama, which Fenlon Lamb’s direction brings alive with an opera buffa flair that only occasionally flirted with caricature.
The three principals singing the characters in the love plot all making their Palm Beach debuts after having built respectable careers culminating in Metropolitan Opera performances. The Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang sounded sunnier and had more honey to his voice when I heard him sing Nemorino at the Met a few seasons ago. Now, the sound has appealingly matured in darker directions, which gave more resonance to Nemorino’s despairing moments. The signature Act II aria “Una furtive lagrima” unrolled with a plangent sound. The soprano Andriana Churchman, as Adina, had volume, presence, and charisma. She navigated the part’s excited coloratura runs with crystalline focus and adeptly sang the more serious moments with an alluring, full-bodied middle register. Alexey Lavrov got off to a slow start, but this talented young baritone was suitably brash in the role of Belcore, the officer who rivals Nemorino for Adina’s love. The South African bass Musa Ngqungwana was an oleaginous Doctor Dulcamara, the quack whose elixir promises such a range of relief that his name includes the Italian words for both “bitter” and “sweet.” The young mezzo-soprano Alexandra Razskazoff, who sang the role of Adina’s friend and the neighborhood busybody Giannetta, did Palm Beach’s Benenson Young Artists program fine credit.
Palm Beach Opera’s chief conductor David Stern led an ebullient performance with a few funny asides. When Doctor Dulcamara asks for more musical accompaniment for his presentation of the elixir, he addresses the request to the podium. His cry, “Davide, musica!” was greeted by the conductor with an enthusiastic English “Of course!”