L’Eliser D’Amore Wins the Hearts of Audience
From the first note of the Oberlin Opera Theater’s Saturday night performance of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (let’s dispense with The Elixir of Love, shall we?) it was clear that an impressive performance lay ahead. Throughout the opera’s brief orchestral introduction (and, indeed, the entire performance) the Oberlin Chamber Orchestra produced impressively supple sonorities, and conductor Francis Graffeo’s relatively fast speeds and springy rhythms ensured that things did not stall.
Then the curtain rose and it was possible to see how the director, Jonathan Field, created a sense of liveliness and vivacity without overcrowding the stage with too much activity; the main characters stood out clearly. The direction was imaginative and witty throughout the opera; the characters never simply stood around awkwardly, waiting for the numbers to end. One particularly funny piece of direction had the pompous general Belcore sticking his phallic sword into a plot of flowers and thus offering them to the beautiful Adina.
As for the singing, it mostly matched the high standard set by the production. If the performance had a star, it was probably senior Alek Shrader, stepping in for an indisposed senior Samuel Read Levine, as Nemorino. Shrader’s warm, bright timbre was of just the right weight for the role, and his phrasing was consistently ardent and Italianate. His greatest moment came in the famous aria, Una furtiva lagrima, which he ended with a lovely, expressive diminuendo. (There are too many tenors who never even attempt to sing softly.)
As an actor, he made Nemorino’s haplessness touching and funny, rather than cloying, which it easily could have been. Adina, sung by senior Jennifer Jakob, had a bright, clear voice of appropriate size, but her vibrato tended to widen in loud, high writing, and she had a few precarious moments at the top of her range. Nevertheless, she had the vocal agility the role requires and she completely overcame all reservations in a dramatic, exciting account of her final aria. Like everyone else in the cast, she entered completely into the spirit of the performance.
Junior Jeffrey M.L. Hill, who sang Belcore, displayed an impressively rich, full-bodied baritone and a fine legato line, and he seemed to enjoy strutting around pompously in a military uniform. The physical contrast between Shrader and Hill was perfect: Shrader was all boyishness, while Hill was practically a human battleship in a red uniform.
Finally, junior Joseph Barron, who sang Dulcamara, possessed a fine, suitably Italianate bass of considerable power (unsurprisingly, he projected better on long, sustained notes than in fast, florid writing). His performance was in the traditional buffo style, meaning that he was willing to distort line and tone for comic effect, as in Dulcamara’s impersonation of the toothless old senator.
But Dulcamara is one of those roles in which vividness of characterization counts at least as much as vocal polish, and Barron’s suave comic elegance made his performance a memorable one. It wasn’t quite a flawless performance — there were a few problems here and there that I could nitpick at — but the obvious joy of the performers was so infectious that I don’t feel like nitpicking. You didn’t need an elixir to fall in love with this production.