Now, that’s probably one of the last words you expect to see with regard to a genre that has as stuffy a reputation as opera. But the production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amor (The Elixir of Love) by the relatively new Resonance Works company may present you with the opportunity to have the most fun at an opera you will ever have.
The libretto tells a standard rom-com story: boy loves girl who doesn’t love him back until she thinks he’s stopped adoring her, at which point she does everything she can to make him jealous and win him back. Here, Nemorino (Christopher Lucier) is the penniless, dimwitted, hapless sad sack who pines for the rich, gorgeous and sparklingly intelligent Adina (Lindsay Ohse). When a stallion of a sergeant, Belcore (Patrick McNally) struts into town and sets his sights on Adina, Nemorino gets desperate and spends his last penny on what he thinks is an elixir of love from a traveling charlatan, Dr. Dulcamara (Kevin Glavin). The elixir is really just cheap booze, so Dulcamara tells Nemorino that it will be a full day before it takes effect, which gives him plenty of time to clear out of town before Nemorino figures out he’s been conned. Drunkenly confident that the love potion will make him irresistible to Adina tomorrow, Nemorino stops caring about how she feels about him today, which upsets her enough to goad him into jealousy by agreeing to marry Belcore. They set their wedding date for the next week, which likewise doesn’t bother Nemorino and makes Adina even more furious. But when the regiment is called back to war, Belcore pressures Adina into marrying him that evening, and sends Nemorino into despair. He signs up for the army in order to get the money to buy more love potion; when Adina realizes what he has done she buys out his contract and admits she loves him. Meanwhile, Nemorino’s rich uncle has died and left him the wealthiest man in town, so Dulcamara can claim not only that his love potion worked, but that it also had the power to make a poor man rich.
Stage director Andrew Nienaber has cleverly set the opera in a 1950s nightclub called “Adina’s Cabaret.” A portion of the audience members sit at café tables (light snacks provided, cash bar in the lobby), the orchestra is arranged like a big band, and the ensemble, dressed in black and white, double as the cabaret’s waiters and waitresses. There is a small stage with a microphone, but otherwise the nightclub setting is the set. The majority of the action takes place in, around, and at the tables. The result is utterly, fabulously engaging: the energetic young cast swirls among the tables, interacting and flirting with members of the audience, and using not only music and voice but also body language and facial expression to create vivid, playful characters. The updated setting (the original opera is set in Adina’s vineyard) has the added bonus of making the class difference between Nemorino and Adina easy to signal: here, he’s a lowly, barely literate janitor in the nightclub she owns and runs. The iconographic contrast between his gray, shapeless coveralls and her va-va-voom tight red dress underscores the social distance between them, and Lucier and Ohse skillfully build on the costuming choice to create distinct opposites who will eventually attract (he’s soft and sweet, she’s sharp and acerbic). Ohse, in particular, is as gifted an actor as she is a vocalist, conveying clearly her character’s often conflicted emotions and feelings when she thinks Nemorino may have actually stopped adoring her.
Conductor Maria Sensi Sellner has assembled a terrific ensemble of musicians. Ohse has a gorgeously clear soprano voice, and even super up close her singing seems almost effortless. McNally and Lucier sing powerfully as the rival lovers, but the show stealer is Kevin Galvin as Dr. Dulcamara. On top of a commanding voice he has a marvelous comic sensibility: his program bio claims that he’s been named “the funniest man in opera” and his performance here gives ample support for that designation. The orchestra plays Donizetti’s lively and fast-paced music with precision and flair, and even in the small space Sellner keeps the orchestral volume in balance with the vocal performers.
A number of playful touches raise the production’s fun factor: the subtitles, for example, peppered with slang words like “cojones,” and many of the props, like the Wigle Whiskey bottle that contains the elixir. But above all, it’s our immersion in the action that makes the evening such a delight.
Now that I’ve experienced it, I want all my opera to come in surround sound.