Vibrant singing opens HGO’s season in style with comic “Elixir”

Sat Oct 22, 2016 at 2:18 pm
By Steven Brown
Nicole Heaston and Dimitri Pittas star in Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love" at Houston Grand Opera. Photo: Lynn Lane

Nicole Heaston and Dimitri Pittas star in Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” at Houston Grand Opera. Photo: Lynn Lane

Last spring’s Siegfried may still be echoing in the ears of Houston Grand Opera’s audience. And the company has Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) in store for next spring, when it completes its four-year traversal of Wagner’s Ring.

So it’s a wise move for HGO to ease into the 2016-17 season with The Elixir of Love. Gaetano Donizetti’s bubbly comedy makes a welcome palate-cleanser amid the recent courses of Wagner, especially when it’s performed with so much zest as at the season opener Friday night.

Tenor Dimitri Pittas and soprano Nicole Heaston, as the lovesick Nemorino and his seemingly unobtainable Adina, head up a fresh-voiced and animated cast. Conductor Jane Glover, known mainly for Mozart and Baroque opera, shows that crispness, vitality and deft coloring suit Donizetti as well as Handel. Stage director Daniel Slater and set-and-costume designer Robert Innes Hopkins give Elixir’s sunshine a new tint by transplanting the story to Italy’s Amalfi Coast in the 1950s.

Created for England’s Opera North, this Elixir unfolds on the patio of the Hotel Adina, where Nemorino works as a waiter. If that implies that the object of Nemorino’s affection is also his boss, the staging doesn’t make a heavy-handed  issue of it; Adina never pushes him away by brandishing a booklet from the human-resources department.

But the setting enables Heaston’s Adina to breeze through Act 1 wearing Capri pants, and Slater turns Donizetti’s villagers into smartly dressed hotel guests. Belcore, Nemorino’s rival for Adina, makes his entrance on a Vespa, and  the wedding party begins Act 2 with a conga line. Nemorino’s longing for Adina still drives the story, though, and Pittas and Heaston made a lively pair.

Pittas didn’t bring Nemorino’s moments of despair — or the opera’s best-known aria, “Una furtiva lagrima” — the subtle shading that would get to the heart of Donizetti’s lyricism. Still, his voice’s ring and projection ensured that the hapless youth’s ardor always came across. When Nemorino’s courage got a temporary boost from the alcoholic magic of Dr. Dulcamara’s potion, Pittas easily put over the music’s swagger.

Heaston sang with a command and poignancy that nearly turned Adina, rather than Nemorino, into the opera’s emotional center. Rather than the light-voiced soubrette that companies often  cast in the role, Heaston was a lyric soprano able to treat Donizetti’s music to fullness and warmth.

As Adina entered, musing on Tristan and Isolde, Heaston’s vibrant singing gave a glimpse of the legendary lovers’ passion. But when Donizetti’s playfulness took over, Heaston’s sparkle and deftness exuded Adina’s wiliness. And in the heartfelt aria at the opera’s turning point, Heaston combined tenderness and fervor, serving notice that a comedy can have depth. Soprano Alicia Gianni complemented Heaston nicely as Adina’s perky friend, Giannetta. 

Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi was a fountain of energy as Dr. Dulcamara, the huckster who passes off Bordeaux wine as a love potion. Light on his feet, hands in perpetual sales-pitch motion, Carfizzi cut a vivacious figure, and his voice sealed the dramatic deal. It not only welled up lustily in Dulcamara’s sales pitches, but it had a gentler, even graceful side that some buffos can’t muster. When Dulcamara told Adina about being approached by the distraught Nemorino for help wooing her, Carfizzi made the crook sound sorry for his victim — at least for a moment.

Carfizzi’s Dulcamara sang with a bit more heft than the other bass-baritone in the cast: Michael Sumuel, who portrayed the full-of-himself military man Belcore. Sturdy and resonant though his voice was, Sumuel didn’t have quite the power to make Belcore’s bravado flood across the footlights. But his burly presence made up most of the difference, especially when Belcore was decked out in his formal white uniform in Act 2.

The Houston Grand Opera Chorus had an uneven night, sometimes performing with its usual crispness and clarity, sometimes not. (Did the broad patio awning that covered most of the stage soak up some of the choiral sound?)

In the pit, Glover and the HGO Orchestra enhanced the story’s humor and poetry. When Nemorino and Adina finally began to realize that they loved one another, the strings’ silkiness signaled what was happening: Score one for Donizetti’s skill at creating powerful results through simple means.

Slater’s staging occasionally went in for a comic hard-sell that got in the way of Donizetti’s charm and poignancy. When Giannetta told her friends that Nemorino would soon inherit his uncle’s fortune, they were tipsy from the wedding party–slapstick with no parallel in the music. And as Dulcamara complemented Adina’s wiles, she lassoed him with her scarf–even though the story doesn’t involve her chasing him–and after he ended up on all fours, she rode him cowboy-style. Elixir doesn’t need shtick to be fun.

The Elixir of Love runs through Nov. 4.; 713-228-6737.

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