Suitors vie for the queen of the vineyard in the Florentine's "L'elizir d'amore."
If versatility is the mark of a solid opera performer, then tenor Rolando Sanz is as sturdy as they come. A few years ago, he played and sung a dashing Alfredo in the Florentine Opera’s memorable 2013 production of La Traviata. In this weekend’s staging of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, he plays a different kind of romantic lead: the comically pining, somewhat schlubby Nemorino—a common worker desperately in love with the beautiful and capricious Adina (Diana McVey).
Adina is the owner of a vineyard, and definitely wears the pants in her relationships (dashing, Katherine Hepburn, screwball-era slacks, thanks to costume designer Christianne Myers). She even toys with her most prominent suitor, the comically pompous Sergeant Belcore (Corey McKern), who carries a hand-mirror in his pistol belt—always handy for a quick primp before approaching his ladylove.
Nemorino’s hope arrives grandly, in the form of Dulcamara (Musa Ngqungwana), a medicine-show peddler who offers a magic potion guaranteed to make even the basest peasant desirable. And faster than you can say Sangiovese, he seems to have a chance with Adina. Not before, however, the story provides him some comic ups-and-downs, and Donizetti gives him the passionately tender show- stopper, “La Furtiva Lagrima,” which Sanz sang with tenderness and conviction.
Director William Florescu sets this story in Napa Valley in the 1930s (the original took place in an Italian village), and it allows the Florentine to create an impressive physical production, with a vibrant Fauvist backdrop (set design by Lisa Schlenker) and a colorful crowd of locals costumed by Myers. It also enables the company to engage in a bit of product placement (the Florentine commissioned its own variety of wine from a Napa vineyard), and to create a grand entrance for Dulcamara, who arrives on the bed of a vintage pickup truck.
Musically, the production is a bit of a mixed bag, with Sanz and Ngqungwana as standouts. Sanz’s tenor was warm and engaging throughout, but he didn’t lose sight of the modesty of Nemorino (translation–no showboating). And Ngqungwana brought comic flair and sure musicality to the patter songs of the huckster salesman. And McKern offered a strong, macho presence in his acting and singing. On the other hand, McVey’s voice didn’t exhibit the fluidity and suppleness that makes such bel canto roles so pleasureable. It may be that she had to push a little harder to accommodate the always challenging Uihlein Hall acoustics.
L’elisir is a challenging choral show, and Scott Stewart’s ensemble rose to the occasion, even though conductor Joseph Rescigno occasionally struggled at times to keep the orchestra and voices together. When the ensembles were in synch, however, there were some dazzling musical moments for soloists and chorus alike. Like the best work from this golden age of Italian opera, this L’elisir d’amore is truly a marvelous and tasty concoction.