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Donizetti Sings at the Houston Grand Opera 

By Connie Carr
October 2009


Photo/Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera; Photo by Felix Sanchez
John Osborn (Nemorino) and the HGO chorus

L'Elisir d'Amore (The Elixir of Love)
Music by Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto by Felice Romani
Conductor: Edoardo Müller
Director: Annabel Arden
Performances: October 23, 25, 28, November 4, 7, 2009 Houston, Tx.

The power of a single individual to change society through acts of love, is as profound an idea today as it was when Gaetano Donizetti's comic masterpiece, L'Elisir d'Amore premiered in 1832. This bel canto opera, “the Elixir of Love” opens the Houston Grand Opera's (HGO) 2009/2010 season, and is a wonderful experience for first time opera-goers, as well as for long time opera fanatics.  

Donizetti’s characters are preoccupied with day-to-day existence and pursuit of pleasure in their little world, but there’s more here than meets the eye. Nemorino (John Osborn, tenor) a simple peasant, is guided by a longing for something more permanent, which he cannot express fully, but which does get communicated through Donizetti's divine music.  But most importantly, Romani and Donizetti force the audience to laugh at the peasants who fall for magic potions, who are much like people today, who fall for “get-rich-quick” and other schemes. Throughout the opera, the irony of each character dealing with what they perceive to be reality, and their perception of the cause of what they see, is beautifully and humorously brought forth, especially in the ensembles and duets.

The Elixir


Photo/Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera; Photo by Felix Sanchez
Ekaterina Siurina (Adina) and the HGO Chorus in Donizetti's The Elixir of Love

L’elisir d’amore opens as Nemorino sings of how dear the beautiful Adina is to him, yet he cannot inspire in her heart any affection for him.  We first meet the beautiful, wealthy landowner, Adina (Ekaterina Siurina, soprano) as she lets out a huge laugh. She sings the story of Tristan, who drinks a magic potion (the elixir) so that the cruel Isolde will succumb to his love.  Then Adina, Nemorino, and the chorus of villagers sing of how they all wish they could find such an elixir.  The music is very fast and lively, and you can almost hear Adina laughing as she sings the coloratura in the third register.  For Adina, it's best to find a new love every day.  But for Nemorino, "love is like the river running constantly to the sea, to die, by a power which he cannot explain."  Sergeant Belcore (Liam Bonner, baritone) marches in with his soldiers, and announces his intention to marry Adina, although she is not quite ready to be conquered. Doctor Dulcamara, “un gran medico,” (Alessandro Corbelli, bass-baritone) arrives, selling tonic that can cure just about anything- it kills mice and rats, gets rid of wrinkles, and improves one's love life. Nemorino buys the special “love potion of Queen Isolde,” foolishly believing that it will make Adina love him.  As he drinks the “elixir “ (which is just cheap wine) Adina enters. Confused about Nemorino's behavior, she agrees to marry Belcore, however only after 6 days have passed, expecting Nemorino to be upset. But Nemorino is delighted, because he “knows” that the elixir will work and Adina will fall in love with him by the morning.  In his duets with Doctor Dulcamara and Sergeant Belcore, Nemorino's lines are long and arching as he sings of only living for one true love.  Dulcamara and Belcore sing more staccato as they talk about ephemerals, such as wealth, riches, women, and the glory of war.  Belcore and his soldiers announce they must leave town in the morning, and Adina agrees agree to marry him that very night.  In the Act One finale, when Nemorino pleads with Adina not to rush into a hasty marriage, which she will regret, his legato line, "Adina, credimi," soars above the rest of the chorus.  The act ends with everyone mocking Nemorino as he calls out to the Doctor for pity. 


Photo/Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera; Photo by Felix Sanchez
(Left to Right) Adam Van Wagoner (Dr.'s Assistant), Alessandro Corbelli (Dr. Dulcamara) and John Osborn (Nemorino)

The curtain opens for Act Two with the wedding ceremony, which Adina wants to postpone when she sees that Nemorino is absent. Poor Nemorino returns to Dulcamara with his plight, and is told the solution is – to buy more elixir!  He has no money, but decides to get it by enlisting in Belcore’s army – that is, selling his freedom.  Meanwhile, the girls in town, led by Gianetta (Catherine Martin, mezzo-soprano) discover that Nemorino's rich uncle died, leaving him everything.  As Nemorino returns, quite drunk from his new batch of “elixir,”  he finds the girls fawning all over him, and the new millionaire bachelor thinks the potion is working. Adina, however is perplexed and sad, so Dulcamara offers to sell her his “elixir of love of Queen Isolde,” telling her how Nemorino sold his own freedom for it, so he could win a cruel girl. Here she realizes what has happened and decides to use her own devices to win Nemorino.  Nemorino's wonderful aria, "Una furtiva lagrima," is a beautiful, reflective romanza.  He sees Adina’s tear, and he can now die in peace, because he knows that Adina really does love him.  Donizetti brings out the change in Adina in both her duet with Dulcamara and in her last aria, "Prendi, per me sei libero," where she gives Nemorino back his enlistment papers, and finally admits that she loves him. Belcore shrugs it off, saying that there are plenty of other women for him, as Doctor Dulcamara agrees, “especially if you drink my elixir.”  Act Two ends with the whole cast singing the praises of Doctor Dulcamara's elixir of love!

HGO’s Production


Photo/Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera; Photo by Felix Sanchez
Ekaterina Siurina (Adina) and Liam Bonner (Belcore) in HGO's The Elixir of Love

The singers in the HGO production brought out these aspects of the characters very well and in the bel canto tradition.  Ekaterina Siurina is a brilliant, sparkling Adina, from her first laugh to her final duet with Nemorino.   Alessandro Corbelli is a wonderful, lively Dulcamara.  Liam Bonner's elegant voice portrays Belcore with just the right amount of gallantry and pomposity.  His phrasing and agility comes forth in his aria, “Come paride vezzoso.”  John Osborn is a charming Nemorino, and his voice rings out in the high registers. Catherine Martin is a high-spirited Gianetta, especially in her scene with the HGO women's chorus.   Italian Maestro Edoardo Müller's conducting of the HGO Orchestra is one of the high points of the opera.  His tempo accentuates both the legato and the counterpoint in the score; and he is very generous to the singers, which was especially noticeable with Osborn in “Una furtiva lagrima.” 

This production is an “updated” one, which, though it works with respect to the plot, it is NOT Donizetti’s opera. It is set during the time of rural electrification, which Doctor Dulcamara deploys as a demonstration of his powers.  What doesn't work is the overdone stage business and the extra character, who is ostensibly Doctor Dulcamara's assistant (a clown), but whose antics harm more than help the story.  L'Elisir is a melodramma giocoso, or playful melodrama, not simply an opera buffa.  The audience must be able to concentrate on the ideas being presented, but increasingly, the MTV culture is creeping into great opera in an attempt to win over new and younger audiences by making opera more popular and “relevant.”   The extraneous activity on the stage, the excessive slapstick and the busy activity distracts the attention of the audience away from the real humor and message of the opera.  Not surprisingly, the piece with the fewest distractions, with just one singer standing and delivering, “Una furtiva lagrima,” got the longest ovation from the audience.  HGO should have used its period production of L'Elisir from the 1999, 2000 season, as it was more in the spirit of Donizetti.


Photo/Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
Edoardo Müller (Conductor)

Donizetti and Bel Canto

Gaetano Donizetti, known as one of the great bel canto era composers, was born in 1797, in Bergamo, Italy, and lived until 1848.  In 1806, he was a member of the first class of students enrolled in the Lezioni Caritatevoli di Musica, a school for needy musicians, founded by Johannes Simon Mayr.  Born in Bavaria in 1763, Mayr moved to Bergamo in 1802, and became maestro di cappella at Santa Maria Maggiore.  Mayr composed many operas, and he helped introduce Beethoven's music to Italy.  Mayr helped Donizetti get enrolled in Padre Mattei's school in Bologna to further his study of fugues and counterpoint.  He also assisted Donizetti in securing contracts for operas throughout Italy.  Donizetti's first international success was in 1830, with his 33rd opera, Anna Bolena, which was performed in Paris and London.  Two years later, his career took off further with L'Elisir d'Amore.  Felice Romani, his librettist, was a well known patriotic poet and a political activist in the 1830s movement in Italy.   

Donizetti set 70 operas, which included roles composed for some of the greatest singers of the day – Maria Malibran, Giuditta Pasta, Giulia Grisi, Giovanni Rubini, and Giorgio Ronconi.  “Bel canto,” beautiful song, or beautiful singing, is a method of singing that originated in Florence, Italy during the Italian Renaissance.  What we today  know as staged opera had its beginnings in the 1500s with associations like the Camerata, a society of musicians, poets, and intellectuals, who composed and performed music based on the style of the ancient Greek dramas,  in which the actors, or singers, would be able to project the voice into a large hall or amphitheater.  Bel canto is characterized by the principles of legato tone production and agility through elevation, roundness of sound, vibrato, and registration.  Bel canto stresses the primacy of the human voice, and demands great virtuosity from the singers.

The Purpose of Art

 The Schiller Institute seeks to bring in new audiences to witness the great arts, as a process of uplifting the human soul.  As Friedrich Schiller wrote in “Theater Considered as a Moral Institution,”  theater “opens up infinite horizons to the spirit thirsting for activity, providing nourishment to the soul's every power without overtaxing any single one, and uniting the acculturation of mind and heart with the noblest sort of entertainment.”  In the Preface to the “Manual on the Rudiments of Tuning and Registration,” Lyndon LaRouche states, “The purpose of great art is to celebrate and strengthen the noblest state of mind which the individual person can achieve, and to aid thus in making us better people....The most precious gift we may receive, is the means to bring forth the force of Agape (love) to rule our minds, and guide our actions, at will.  Artistic beauty is a lever by means of which we are enabled to do just that.  That is the purpose of art in general, and music in particular, according to the Classical Idea.” 

Thanks to the traditional bel canto singing and conducting, and Donizetti's wonderful music, which overshadow the distractive and hyperactive staging, and modernized setting, the HGO production of L'Elisir d'Amore approaches this idea.  So go see it, and watch the video clips included here.  L'Elisir is a lively, intoxicating, high-spirited opera, with a joyous ending and irony throughout.

 

References:

Friedrich Schiller, Theater Considered as a Moral Institution, from Friedrich Schiller, Poet of Freedom Vol. One translated by John Sigerson and John Chambless

Schiller Institute, A Manual on the Rudiments of Tuning and Registration, Book One, Introduction and Human Singing Voice, 1992

Charles Osborne, The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, 1994

The New Grove Masters of Italian Opera, 1980, sections on Donizetti by William Ashbrook and Julian Budden

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