Spaghetti western as opera

A ranch hand in chaps trying to do rope tricks. A monied country girl in an Annie Oakley outfit. A sergeant who looks like a General Custer wannabe. A snake oil salesman whose accoutrements include a Victrola for occasional musical backup. And a spirited dash of good old-fashioned do-si-do-ing. Sure sounds like an Italian opera to me.

Actually, it's not such a stretch, when the opera is Donizetti's eternal charmer, L'elisir d'amore (The Elixir of Love). Early 19th-century Italian rusticity, the plot's original milieu, is hardly the only apt setting for a story about love, flirtation and hucksterism.


The temptation to transplant the action to America is understandable, but making it work can be tricky. I remember a late-'90s production in Florida that relocated the opera to the Midwest, where everyone looked a little uncomfortable and the sets suggested a community theater revival of Show Boat. For Wolf Trap Opera, stage director Helena Binder has gone farther West to give Elixir a tight new fit in an unusually successful case of operatic updating.

Binder's concept (it's not so much the Old West as what a vintage Hollywood musical might do with the Old West) is deftly matched by designer Tony Cisek, who takes his cue from the performance space -- the Barns at Wolf Trap. The stage set is a barn as basic as the actual theater, with wood beams over the singers, not just the audience. Kaye Voyce adds the finishing touch with the colorful cowboy costumes.


The visual twist meshes smoothly with the plot, even when characters square dance to unmistakably Italian music in the banquet scene. For extra thoroughness, a Western typeface is used for the sometimes cutesy surtitles. The whole thing may strike some as hokey, but there's an awful lot of charm in this detailed, well-timed staging.

On Wednesday night, Steven White, who will lead Baltimore Opera's performances of Bellini's I Puritani in November, conducted a snappy performance that didn't slight the score's sweet moments. The young cast got fully into the spirit of the production; acting was uniformly assured, from the principals to the chorus, alive with telling gestures and expressions. Individual voices tended to reveal room to grow, but everyone negotiated the curves and insinuations of Donizetti's brilliant melodic lines in style.

As Nemorino, smitten with the seemingly out-of-reach Adina, Nicholas Phan revealed an attractive tenor capable of considerable bloom and presence. A little more technical refinement and much more variety of dynamics could give his vocalism terrific individuality. Like Phan, Alyson Cambridge tended to over-sing much of her music, but her Adina certainly provided a bright center of attention. And when, in the second act, the soprano concentrated more intently on nuance, the results were captivating.

Jason Hardy romped through the role of the traveling con man Dulcamara. His very promising bass needs only some extra bite and heft to make it command the stage as vividly as his theatrical personality does. Aaron Judisch brought a light baritone and abundant flourish to the role of the vain Belcore. Angela Niederloh (Giannetta), along with the mostly disciplined chorus and orchestra, also served Donizetti's score vibrantly.


What: The Elixir of Love

Where: The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1645 Trap Road, Vienna, Va.,

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow


Tickets: $56

Call: 703-218-6500 or 800-955-5566