The Elixir of Love

Donizetti's Frothy Comedy at San Francisco Opera

By: - Nov 21, 2023

Few opera composers reached the peak of their profession and showed equal facility in drama and comedy.  Gaetano Donizetti fulfilled those conditions like few others.  The delightful “L’elisir d’amore” debuted in 1832, around the middle of his career but before almost all of his most noted works, including his other two highly esteemed comedies “Don Pasquale” and “Daughter of the Regiment” as well as dramas “Lucia di Lammermore” and the three Tudor operas.

This production updates the libretto’s action to the Italian Riviera in the 1950’s with a bright, colorful staging and costumes that give the production extra liveliness.  Director Daniel Slater’s sight gags add to the joy.  Nemorino waits tables in the café of the hotel owned by Adina who rebuffs his advances and instead indicates that she plans to marry Belcore, a captain in the navy.  Enter medicine man (read: snake oil salesman) Dr. Dulcamara, descending in a hot-air balloon, no less.  The good “doctor” convinces Nemorino that a love potion will make him irresistible to Adina.  This is a romantic comedy, so you can imagine the machinations leading to the eventual happy ending.

After his successes on many European opera stages, what makes this production especially sparkle is the return to San Francisco Opera of Pene Pati in what could easily become a signature role for him.  Could there be a more quintessential Nemorino?  His gorgeous tenor voice, with a slight Italianate lilt, fits the vocal demands of the part.  More than that, he embodies Nemorino.  His pleasant, innocent face and easy smile align well, and Pati’s comic acting gives the character additional charm, right down to some spot-on miming of Elvis Presley.

While the libretto of “The Elixir of Love” exudes light-heartedness and froth from beginning to end like few other operas, the composition possesses abundant mastery of the genre.  Although some sameness and singsonginess recurs in much of the music, the haunting, almost bookended romanzas for tenor depart from the rest.  In the melancholy “Quanto è bella,” which is the first aria in the opera, a reflective Nemorino expresses his love for Adina but also his self doubt that he can make her love him.

Appearing near the end is the opera’s most famous aria, “Una furtiva lagrima,” which flips the positions of the seeker and the sought.  While unquestionably beautiful, the pensiveness of the aria doesn’t really reflect what should be Nemorino’s joy, as the secret tear falls from Adina’s eye and says that she now loves him.  Pati really milked the aria on opening night with long pauses between phrases toward the end.  His rendition was powerful and deservingly produced as sustained an applause for an aria as you might witness at an American opera house.

Making her commanding American and role debut as Adina is Vienna-based Slávka Zámeníková.  With a voice both silken and agile, the soprano fits well musically into the bel canto role, navigating both the luxuriant and staccato elements of the score.  She captures both the warmth and aloofness of the character.  In her lovely “Della crudele Isotto,” which tells of the use of a love potion in the legend of Tristan and Isolda, Nemorino comes to believe that such a potion might help him win Adina over.  Zámeníková also delights in her duet with Pati, “Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera,” showing great range and vocal beauty.

The clear and tight narrative of “The Elixir of Love” requires only five principals, all of whom perform admirably.  Both baritones fill the bill, having performed their respective parts previously.  David Bizic as Belcore and Renato Girolami as Dulcamara, are both self-indulgent, flamboyant, and elusive in their own way.  Belcore is likely to have a girl in every port and Dulcamara suckers in every town.  Finally, Adler Fellow Adrianna Rodriguez portrays another employee of Adina, Gianetta, who spreads the word in the closing scenes that Nemorino’s uncle has died and that he is now rich.  Rodriguez shows great promise with a strong soprano voice and stage presence.

Of course, by today’s standards, one could criticize the libretto for its 19th century sensibility that Nemorino’s becoming rich makes him a greater catch.  The good news is that neither lover was aware of the newfound wealth when they declared their mutual love.

“The Elixir of Love” (L’elisir d’amore), composed by Gaetano Donizetti with libretto by Felice Romani after Eugène Scribe’s text based on Daniel Auber’s opera “Le Philtre,” is co-produced by San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, and plays at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco, CA through December 9, 2023.