Donizetti's Elixir of Love is an easy-to-love opera, and one that I would recommend to newbies – along with Rossini's The Barber of Seville – as a friendly entry point into the art form. The music is beautiful, the story is simple and charming, and all you really have to do is sit back and let the songs wash over you, as you enjoy what is usually a pretty setting and some fun stage business. It is, after all, buffa, or comic opera, and you don't have to dread consumptive heroines slow to cough out their last aria or a stage carpeted with the bodies of suicides and murder victims.
Kentucky Opera's charmingly simple production of Elixir, thankfully, does nothing to distract from the opera's core strengths – loveable characters, beautiful songs, and a story that doesn't take a Deconstructionist to decode. In short, country boy Nemorino is in love with the wealthy and beautiful landowner Adina, who spurns and teases him, as he hangs besottedly on her every word and movement. Two visitors to their small village arrive to stir things up – the pompous but handsome soldier Belcore, who instantly marks out Adina for his own, and the snake oil salesman Dulcamara, selling bogus potions that he promises will smooth your wrinkles, clear up bad skin, and get you the ladies – your average spammer, 19th-century style.
Poor Nemorino, steadfast and handsome, but not the sharpest tool in the shed, gives his last coin to buy Dulcamara's love potion, hoping to finally win Adina's love before she marries the strutting peacock Belcore. One is never really in doubt that it will all come out alright in the end, but it's very amusing to watch how it unfolds.
The set is about as stripped down as it could be, with a painted backdrop of a rather generic Italian landscape, a building facade with the requisite patio and balcony, bucolic bales of hay, and a romantic rope swing for Adina. Some productions have gone in for transporting the action to the American Civil War era, or even more oddly, a 50s roadside diner, but director Dorothy Danner's decision to keep it tied to its original 1800s setting is much less distracting, not to mention, it just makes more sense. The costumes are very well-done – from the colorful and beplumed military uniforms to rustic peasant-wear, and pretty floral frocks that are perfectly suited for flouncing and twirling. I thought Dulcamara's look was spot-on, wigged and mustachioed with his old-fashioned knee-breeches and frock coat, marking him out as someone dressed to impress, and hoping you won't notice while he empties your pockets.
While the cast still seemed tentative in some of their movements (this was a full dress rehearsal, so kinks are still being worked out and full voices are being saved), the leads handled their roles well. Victor Ryan Robertson made a fully sympathetic Nemorino, full of sweetness, with a tender tenor voice to match. He gets the spotlight in singing one of the most famous arias in all of opera, “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” staying true to its hopefulness and letting the power swell from the heart of bare longing. He and Louisville native Emily Albrink as Adina have a playful chemistry. I admit I often find sopranos to be a little too shrill, but I thought she had a lovely, clear tone that was not at all abrading. Peter Strummer as the sneaky Dulcamara and Chad Sloan as Belcore, were also fine, bringing Donizetti's downright hummable tunes the right amount of verve and energy.
The orchestra, conducted by Joseph Mechavich, delivered a solid performance – to this non-expert's ear, anyway. Short of someone throwing a cymbal at the oboist, if there's not a pretty obvious flat note or a squeak where there shouldn't be a sound, I'm giving out full marks to the pit every time.
If you're thinking about a trip to the opera, this Elixir is a very pleasant production and gets extra credit for featuring two Kentucky natives in major roles (Albrink and Sloan). It also gets in another little salute to its local audience when the magical elixir at the end appears in what should be a very familiar guise to most Kentuckians.
(Photo of Albrink and Robertson, courtesy of Kentucky Opera. Credit: J. David Levy)
Kentucky Opera will perform Donizetti's Elixir of Love this Friday, October 22 at 8:00 p.m. and October 24 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $35 - $95, available from Kentucky Center's box office  or by calling (502) 562-0100.