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Washington National Opera serves up an effective 'Elixir'

Comic operas don't come more endearing than Donizetti's "L'elisir d'amore"  ("The Elixir of Love").

The humor in this rustic tale, which involves a lovesick guy buying a potion (just plain old wine) from a snake-oil salesman to melt the heart of an indifferent woman, still has good miles left on it, as Washington National Opera's lively revival at the Kennedy Center reconfirms. But the tender side of the work is what ultimately counts the most, and that's what this production brings out with particular effectiveness.

It helps that WNO features the opera world's current love couple, tenor Stephen Costello and his wife, soprano Ailyn Perez, in several performances during the run.  You cannot miss the chemistry between these singers and the way they make the whole opera seem more involving. Although the opening performance may not have caught either at their absolute vocal peak, the distinctive musicality from both impressed greatly, and their vibrant, nuanced acting lit up the stage all night.

For that matter, the whole cast revealed a flair for characterization and for comedy, guided with considerable imagination by director Stephen Lawless. In addition to inserting fresh funny business at practically every opportunity, he has ensured that the heart of the opera beats clearly.

As he revealed in WNO's arresting production of Jake Heggie's "Moby Dick" last month, when he had the role of Greenhorn, Costello is a natural onstage.

As Nemorino, the peasant in love with the seemingly dismissive Adina, the tenor added extra fizz to this "Elixir." He jumped wholeheartedly and with fine timing into the comedic bits, especially the scenes when Nemorino tries to thwart his unexpected rival for Adina's affections, the cocky Sgt. Belcore. All the while, Costello revealed the genuine, vulnerable side of needy Nemorino.

Vocally, the tenor was a little short on the honeyed tone and subtle dynamics that had made his singing in "Moby Dick" stand out, and top notes did not always pop out easily or with much bite. But there was much to savor in his ever-stylish delivery, nowhere more so than in the most famous and beloved aria in "Elixir," "Una furtiva lagrima."

This was one of the most personal and involving accounts I've heard of that piece live in an opera house in many a year. Others may bring a creamier sound to the music, but Costello's communicative styling hit the spot. What really put the interpretation into a special class was the daring choices the tenor made in the cadenza -- adding long pauses between phrases, which produced an electric charge that made the intensity of Nemorino's emotional state register all the more deeply.

Perez likewise left an indelible mark on the production, in her case starting early in the opera with "Della crudele Isotta," Adina's retelling of the Tristan and Isolde legend that will end up giving Nemorino the idea of seeking a love potion. The soprano delivered the aria with extraordinary sensitivity to text and contour of melodic line, not to mention a velvety tone, making it an unusually visceral, absorbing moment.

When it came to the duet for Adina and the elixir-dispensing Dulcamara sung as entertainment during the Act 2 almost-wedding party scene in Act 2, Perez did not settle for just a cute vocal ride. The way she let you feel Adina's inner conflict, as the silly music reached the line about wanting to marry someone else, turned the scene into something real and vital to the whole opera.

And in her last act aria, taken very slowly, Perez summoned remarkable tenderness. Her expressive subtleties throughout compensated easily for a few congested or constricted notes along the way.

Nicola Ulivieri's portrayal of duplicitous Dulcamara proved consistently amusing, from the moment he first entered the barn where this production places most of the action (the eely salesman literally stepped in it). The singing was on the dry side, with some evident strain in the upper reaches, but there great vitality in the phrasing.

Simone Alberghini was also a hoot as a puffed-up Belcore with a roving eye patch. More tonal heft would have been welcome, but the bass-baritone's singing hit the spot nonetheless. Shantelle Przybylo, an animated Giannetta, revealed a smooth, warm voice of considerable promise. Chorus and orchestra sounded generally cohesive.

Conductor Ward Stare did not keep everything tightly in sync, but demonstrated a keen appreciation for the ebb and flow of Donzietti’s marvelous score.

The scenery, designed for WNO by Johan Engels in 1997 and last seen in 2006, has aged well and still exudes lots of atmosphere, aided by Joan Sullivan-Genthe's inspired lighting (the flashes of heat lightning are a wonderful touch).

Except for allowing too much dead air before "Una furtiva lagrima," the pacing is impeccable, with Lawless' directorial panache animating many a scene in distinctive ways. The sight of Nemorino being strapped up in a field like a scarecrow at the end of Act 1 is one example. A bit over the top, maybe, but awfully striking.

All in all, this "Elixir" has an inviting bouquet, a lot of kick and a really strong finish.

Performances, some with different principals, continue through Saturday.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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