`L'elisir' performance is satisfying, spirited


Critic's Corner//Music


Comic operas don't come more charming and tuneful than Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore.

Behind the seemingly superficial surface of the plot's rustic setting is a genuine heart. As the silly games people play, seeking love or money or prestige, get a proper skewering, kernels of truth about human nature seep through the infectious score.

Washington National Opera's production gets those truths across in almost entirely persuasive fashion, while providing some genuinely funny action and exceptional musical values.

Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, conductor Emmanuel Villaume relished attention on subtleties of dynamics, rhythmic flow and instrumental coloring. If a couple of spots could have been tighter, the performance he fashioned proved continually satisfying. It helped, of course, that he had a cast willing and able to delve wholeheartedly into the letter and the spirit of the opera.

Paul Groves caught the simplicity and sweetness of the lovesick Nemorino, while singing with the eloquence and sensitivity of a born bel canto stylist. The tenor's tone was not quite as impressive as the technique and artistry, but that proved a small matter in light of all the insight he offered.

Elizabeth Futral assured acting created a winsome, capricious, ultimately knowing Adina. Although her voice turned brittle when pushed, her agility and variety of phrasing paid rich dividends. With a disposable eye-patch and an ego the size of the Italian countryside, Marc Barrard's Belcore was a hoot, with colorful vocalism to match.

Steven Condy likewise added to the amusement with a finely detailed, Zero Mostel-worthy portrayal of the huckster Dulcamara, ever on the prowl for more gain and ever jumpy about the law. The baritone's voice lacked weight, but never vibrancy. Chorus and orchestra fulfilled their end of things vividly.

The atmospheric unit set by Johan Engels places the action in a big barn with a wheat harvest in the distance. Joan Sullivan-Genthe's lighting is perfectly applied; you can almost feel the heat of the sun streaming into the opening scene.

Just before Nemorino sings "Una furtiva lagrima," the most endearing passage in the opera, the back wall of the barn pulls away to reveal the starry night sky. The small touch nicely points up how love will free Nemorino and Adina from the physical and emotional confines of the farm.

Stephen Lawless is billed as director, but he left early to deal with another project and, learning of some minor changes made in his absence, issued a statement disavowing the final results.

Whatever. There's one thing I'd disavow, though - the idea of having Nemorino and Adina suddenly spat as the curtain falls, an image that goes against the grain of this endearing opera.

"L'elisir d'amore" will be performed at 7:30 tonight and Thursday, with four more performances through April 17, at the Kennedy Center, Virginia and New Hampshire avenues, Northwest. For tickets, call 202-295-2400 or 800-876-7372, or visit dc-opera.org.

`Sacred Service'

Ernest Bloch's Sacred Service, which applies to the Hebrew text of Sabbath morning prayers the kind of musical treatment that many classical composers have applied to Latin liturgy, makes a potent statement, even if considered on purely abstract grounds. The choral writing is as richly textured as the baritone solos are directly communicative; the orchestration is masterful.

If Bloch tends to overuse a technique of building to climactic points with pounding timpani and emphatic brass, the drama can register strongly, as it did Sunday when the Baltimore Choral Arts Society performed Sacred Service at Beth El Congregation. (Columbia Pro Cantare performed the piece in 2001; this was believed to be the first Baltimore performance in 25 years.)

Soloist Thom King offered good, honest, if somewhat monochromatic, singing. The chorus offered clarity, sensitivity and power. The orchestra, divided awkwardly on two levels, held together firmly, with notable efforts from the strings and oboist Jane Marvine. Conductor Tom Hall effectively molded the enriching music.


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