Want to know what can makes a bel canto opera performance great and what can neutralize it? Head to Cowell Theater, where select participants in this summer’s installment of San Francisco Opera’s famed Merola Opera Program hold forth in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) through Sunday afternoon. There, you will receive an object lesson in what Donizetti’s hit parade of comedic delights needs to truly sparkle.
What this Elixir did not need was the otherwise fine accompanist Martin Katz’s railroad timetable pacing. Especially in the first act, Katz’s tempos were so rapid as to render the performance dull. There was so little lingering for effect that arias and ensembles that usually bring applause zipped by in silence.
The first warning signs flashed during Nemorino’s (tenor Daniel Montenegro) great opening aria, “Quanto è bella” (How lovely she is). Although Montenegro got off to an exceedingly nasal start, he not only sounded Italian, with all the squillo (ping) necessary to project in a large house, but also was totally secure throughout the range. But those gifts went for nought in a performance that lavished not a spare iota of a second on the “beautiful singing” that lies at the heart of bel canto. If there was any subtle shading, any softening and sighing, even a touch of tempo variation save for near-obligatory slowing at the aria’s end, it could not be heard in the seventh row.
Adina (soprano Nadine Sierra) was equally handicapped. On rare occasions, hints of sweet, soft vulnerability emerged amidst the Metropolitan Opera National Council winner’s strict tempos, and unvaried dynamics (volume).
In the first of the two acts, Sierra treated the very few coloratura flourishes she engaged in routinely, as though they had no dramatic meaning, and Donizetti had included them solely out of stylistic necessity. Not until the second act, when she began to let loose, did she reveal that she possesses a secure and extremely beautiful high E-flat, that she can do a lot with the voice.
The big question: Does responsibility for Sierra’s slow start and lack of dynamics lie with coach, conductor, or all concerned?
Given how routinely everyone dispensed Donizetti’s irresistible tunes, it’s no wonder that Dr. Dulcamara (bass-baritone Thomas Florio) stole much of the show. Not only was his voice fully up to the part and capable of comedic coloring, but he was also alive, physically nimble, and on top of the meaning of almost every note.
Florio had a ball hoodwinking the audience with his mock medicinal magic. Yes, he too could have lingered over phrases more, and used tempos and dynamics to milk the part for all it’s worth. But at least a young and zippy Dulcamara works.
Two of the leads in this first-night cast — different singers perform Friday night and Sunday afternoon — impressed less. Belcore (baritone Benjamin Covey) lacked vocal brilliance. Even though his initially shaky voice soon evened out, it sounded wooly and lacked point. Couldn’t director Nicola Bowie have done more to make him less of a stock character? The smaller role of Giannetta (soprano Hye Jung Lee) affords little opportunity to shine. Lee looked lovely, but failed to balance her vocal slightness with winning charm.
Katz and crew saved their best for the second act. Sierra not only continued to look lovely, but also allowed some of her natural charm and grace to emerge. We even saw traces of the vulnerability that make for a great Adina. And when she did finally indulge in a few high-flying flourishes, the voice sparkled. Montenegro fulfilled most of his promise and there were even hints of sweetness in the few moments when he softened. Didn’t anyone tell these folks that great singers often sing softly?
Alas, Nemorino’s great heart-tugging aria, the beloved “Una furtive lagrima” (One secret tear), was mangled by a rapid, strict tempo. Historically appropriate variations added to the second verse sounded squeezed in, as if Montenegro had entered a competition to determine how many notes can be hit while maintaining a pure legato. Needless to say, the aria lost its soul.
Production a World War II Vintage
Riding the coattails of Mary Zimmerman’s controversial Met production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, Bowie recast the opera from the Italian countryside to a theater rehearsal. Delightfully, this theater was in Fort Mason during 1942. Nemorino became a prop boy, and Adina an actress and manager. How a traveling magician (Dulcamara) fits into this scenario is unclear. Nor did people enlist in the army to fight fascism for $20.
Please don’t ask what a chorus of harvesters and bales of hay were doing on the set of Tristan and Isolde, or why the harvesters were wearing ties. But the switch sure made for some cute costumes and a droll thematic insert.
Better to focus on the fabulous voices in the chorus — some of these Merolini could have sung the conceit off the lead roles — and the beautiful playing of the orchestra. And give thanks to gifted young leads who demonstrated the ability to sing memorably, with beauty and feeling, when granted the space to do so.