Lyrical 'L'Elisir' is a singer's delight

January 05, 1998|By Pierre Ruhe | Pierre Ruhe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If nothing else, the Washington Opera's enjoyable production of Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'amore," now at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, convinces us that nothing is better for the ears than an evening of Italian opera.

The plot may be formulaic and trivial, and the tunes -- although irresistibly hummable -- are lightweight. Yet the organic, lyrical flow of words into music found in this opera (and so many like it) is really at the core of the European musical tradition. Audiences and musicians alike profit when they return to their natal sounds.

Foremost, Donizetti's music is singer's music. In this regard, the most idiosyncratically Italianate member of the cast for the Dec. 31 performance was the Uruguayan bass Erwin Schrott, playing the comic catalyst Dr. Dulcamara, who peddles magic elixirs from village to village. Lustrous, vibrant and warm in voice, tall and charismatic in presence, Schrott often appeared to take center stage and thus heightened his contribution to the action's twists and turns. His youth (he looked about 30) added to his image as an ambitious entrepreneur and deceitful scammer.

With different stage direction, he could easily pass for a yuppie Washington lawyer. He whistled the long "s" consonants -- like an old man whose teeth have fallen out -- while he sang the Venetian duet, showing adroit, spontaneous comic timing.

The romantic leads, the usual threesome of tenor, soprano and baritone, tell a parable about sticking to one's own economic class. Adina, a wealthy landowner described as bookish and serious, is chased by two suitors: Nemorino, a dumb but sincere country bumpkin, and Belcore, a pudgy, loutish sergeant wearing an eye patch and a toy soldier's red jacket. She plays the men off each other until Nemorino inherits a fortune -- thus becoming her peer -- and "true love" succeeds, as it somehow always must.

Yet here a smiling Adina, sung by Svetla Vassileva, was too girlish, too silly, in vocal characterization to contrast with the men. Her coloratura technique -- that florid ability to rapidly skip from note to note -- was solid, yet her voice held little warmth or interpretive depth.

Tenor John Osborn, as Nemorino, was powerful and lyrical in tone and sang with passion. Baritone Vittorio Vitelli, as Belcore, had a hearty voice and used fluid, rounded and trilled vowels for amusing ends.

If the cast made a relatively balanced group -- no stars but also no weak links -- it was the orchestra, conducted by John Keenan, that fell short of expectations. Although the woodwinds were strong in their solos, the strings sounded anemic and watery, the percussion indecisive. Keenan's beats were flexible to support the singers, but overall there lacked a strong orchestral backbone. One matter of priority for this company is to engage more effective guest conductors.

This "L'Elisir," directed by John Lawless and designed by Johan Engels, is a co-production with opera companies from Los Angeles and Geneva, which partially explains why it has a one-size-fits-all quality about it. As with most Washington Opera productions in recent years, these gentlemen, along with virtually every member of the cast and production team, are making their company debut.

Fittingly for this New Year's Eve performance, when Keenan took to the stage for his curtain call, he started up the orchestra for an audience sing-along of "Auld Lang Syne."

Opera

What: Donizetti's "L'Elisir D'Amore" performed by the Washington Opera, in Italian with English Surtitles

Where: Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, Washington

When: Tomorrow and Jan. 16, 19, 22, 28, 31, and Feb. 3, 6, 9 at 7: 30 p.m.; Jan. 25 at 2: 30 p.m.

Tickets: $36-$205

Call: 800-444-1324

Pub Date: 1/05/98

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