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Photo courtesy of Opera Birmingham.
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Photos courtesy of Opera Birmingham.
If you have tickets to Opera Birmingham’s March show, steer clear of a peddler named Dulcamara. He wants you to drink his potion.
And if you fall for his despicable trickery, as Nemorino does in Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love,” you may end up falling in love — or discovering the magic liquid is nothing more than cheap Bordeaux.
Among the most popular operas in the repertoire, “Elixir” has been entertaining audiences for 185 years, beginning with a flurry of performances in Italy, and still holding its own — number 14 in Operabase’s list of most performed operas in 2015-16.
Both frivolous and flirtatious, the plot revolves around a young peasant, Nemorino, who hopes to win the love of Adina, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. But a dapper soldier named Belcore has designs on marrying Adina, so Nemorino must find new means to win her over before the wedding takes place. Enter Dulcamara, a traveling snake oil salesman who has the magic answer, and the gullible Nemorino falls for it.
“Elixir” had everything 19th-century Italian audiences could desire — humor, romance, deception and a love triangle — and those attributes have stood the test of time. Most of all, it contains some of the most melodious bel canto tunes ever penned.
“The most familiar tune is ‘Una furtiva lagrima,’” said Opera Birmingham General Director Keith Wolfe. “When I think of that aria, I think of Luciano Pavarotti. The whole show is filled with that kind of tunefulness. One of the things Donizetti did really well during that bel canto period is using the music to heighten the story, heighten the emotions and have a lot of fun. It has everything going for it.”
“Bel canto” is hard to define until you actually hear it. The primary “beautiful singing” vehicle of 18th- and 19th-century Italian opera, it can be light, natural and ornate, yet filled with sensuous color. Yet it held its own against the operatic excesses that followed.
Houston-based soprano Alicia Gianni, a versatile performer whose singing runs the gamut from opera to jazz to musical theater, brings her bel canto skills to the role of Adina. Though she sang the supporting role of Giannetta in “Elixir” in Houston, this will be her debut of the lead.
“Bel canto roles are so funny because they’re not very relatable,” she said. “It’s like going to the movies. It’s about making people believe they are in this opera. You have to make them relatable.”
Gianni, who recently landed the role of Anita for Houston Grand Opera’s 2018 production of “West Side Story,” is focused on bridging the two-century gap from Donizetti’s “Elixir” to 21st-century audiences.
“I love to do physical comedy,” she said. “I’ve been told I’m a funny girl. I like to play it up a bit. But there has to be sincerity, especially at the end of ‘Elixir.’ Adina is hard to play, above and beyond her singing. She comes across as a bit of a brat, and I don’t want her to be. For me, she’s very sexual. She loves to play and flirt and get her way.”
Roderick George, a seasoned opera singer and University of Montevallo faculty member, plays the peasant youth Nemorino, who falls for the elixir story.
“He’s a pretty simple guy,” George said of Nemorino. “He’s shy, a somewhat awkward, ordinary guy who’s in love with a girl who, in his mind, is unreachable — definitely a contrast to Adina.”
George will join several other Alabamians in the production. André Chiang, who teaches at the University of South Alabama, will sing the role of Belcore. Bass-baritone Paul Houghtaling, a University of Alabama voice faculty member, portrays Dulcamara. Birmingham-based soprano Kathleen Buccleugh will sing the role of Adina’s friend Giannetta.
Keturah Stickann, whose credits as stage director and choreographer include Virginia, Kentucky, Houston Grand, Chautauqua, Santa Fe, San Diego and several other opera companies across the nation, will direct. Leading the Alabama Symphony will be Tyson Deaton, a collaborator with musicians from the Metropolitan Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, San Francisco Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Paris Opera, La Scala and many others.
Set design is by UAB theater department faculty members Kelly Allison, with costumes by Samford University costume shop manager Mary Gurney. The Opera Birmingham Chorus will be led by Daniel Seigel.
Wolfe thinks “Elixir” will be a good introduction for first-time opera-goers.
“You think of first-time operas, and ‘La bohème,’ ‘Carmen’ and other dramatic pieces come to mind,” Wolfe said. “This is not a heavy, serious show, which a lot of operas are. Because of its lighthearted nature and fun spirit, ‘Elixir’ makes a great first opera.”