Los Angeles, September 13 / Review by David Gregson, Opera West
The plaza in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was flooded with glitterati, and even peons entering the hallowed hall were feted with flutes of pomegranate infused champagne. The Los Angeles Opera’s 2009-2010 season was being launched at the ungodly curtain time of 6 p.m. assuring everyone a very early or rather late dinner.
The opera, far from being a depressing and confusing Achim Freyer exercise in Ringaling narcissism, was a revival of a non-Eurotrashy co-production (LAO and Grand Theatre de Genève) of Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” appealingly designed in a grand naturalistic Italian barnyard-and-countryside style by Johan Engels (costumes and scenery) and cleverly directed by Stephen Lawless.
Lawless is fresh from Santa Fe where he staged a delightfully successful Regietheater production of the same opera updated to World War II and set in an automobile repair garage right out of an Italian neo-realist film. (That production is reviewed here at Opera West.)
Expectations for this LAO “Elixir” have been high – with hopes slightly dashed as famed Italian basso Ruggero Raimondi (slated for the buffo role of Dulcamara – which would have fit him perfectly at this stage in his career) was forced to drop out of the cast for medical reasons. It would have been Raimondi’s LAO debut role, believe it or not.
The other debuts, however, were just as eagerly awaited: Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti as Nemorino; Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze (yes, that’s Nino, not Nina) as Adina; and, replacing Raimondi, Italian baritone Giorgio Caoduro as the quack potion salesman, Doctor Dulcamara. The one truly familiar drawing card was American baritone Nathan Gunn, who always creates excitement of one type or another. He and Caoduro are two elite members of the Barihunk fraternity, that is to say, fine singers who also set hearts a aflutter.
Another debut of sorts was that of company music director James Conlon, leading the fine orchestra in what is supposed to be his first attempt in LA at conducting a bel canto opera. I should have thought such a straight-forward score would be a piece of cake for this fine conductor, and indeed such was the case. His apparent motto: Honor the singers, make certain the various balances are under control, don’t let things drag, and keep the music smiling. I don’t know what Tullio Serafin had that Conlon doesn’t. Could be that drenched-in-tradition thing. But this performance was as fine as anticipated. (The fine chorus was under the direction of Grant Gershon.)
Meanwhile, the average opera-follower was not especially anticipating the valuable participation of charming soprano Valerie Vinzant, too easy to overlook in the “supporting” role of Giannetta. She’s like the fourth musketeer, the fifth singer in an opera with four juicy roles.
So – what could go wrong? For starters, while Filianoti has just about everything it takes to be a perfect Nemorino – a perfectly beautiful voice as Italian as vitello tonnato, good looks, a knack for stage comedy, and a good deal of charm – his opening aria “Quanto è bella, quanto è cara” came to grief in the final cadence, and elsewhere he “marked” a high note, while his all-important “Una furtive lagrima” was strained and unremarkable except for one nicely sustained head-tone. Elsewhere he was very good indeed – although I suspected he might be suffering from some sort of vocal strain or hoarseness.
Meanwhile, as Nemorino’s adored Adina, Machaidze seemed to have just about everything anyone could want to hear and see in this role. Her voice has both substance and lightness, and velvet smoothness, and it projects superbly. She manages it flawlessly from one end of the vocal spectrum to the other, and at times one even senses a future for her as Maria Stuarda or another one of Donizetti’s grand tragic queens. Bel canto comes naturally to her, and she is a joy to watch on stage.
As for Gunn, he is so charming as Belcore, it’s hard to separate his excellent singing from the strength of his sheer stage presence. This Miles Gloriosus has located his sex appeal in his eye patch, and when he strips this off, we see that he knows his predatory character is all a lightly assumed masquerade.
No doubt a fine Belcore himself, Caoduro is the kind of singer one craves to hear and see again – but in a role that suits him better. The comic snake-oil vender Dulcamara is best handled by somebody with long-standing buffo credentials, and over-the-top or even crude stage-salesmanship. Fine as he is, Caoduro doesn’t have the chops for this part. Lawless has given Caoduro a dwarf side-kick of sorts, a comical traveling Munchkin whose program credit eludes me.
The opera has several more performances before the end of the run – and I expect what is already a very enjoyable experience will improve with age. I am hoping Filianoti was having an off night — and as good as Caoduro is, it would be nice if Raimondi could assume the part before it’s too late.
Los Angeles: 09/13/09
Gaetano Donizetti’s "The Elixir of Love" ("L’Elisir d’Amore")
NEMORINO Giuseppe Filianoti
ADINA Nino Machaidze
BELCORE Nathan Gunn
DOCTOR DULCAMARA Giorgio Caoduro
GIANNETTA Valerie Vinzant
CONDUCTOR James Conlon
DIRECTOR Stephen Lawless
DESIGNER Johan Engels
LIGHTING DESIGNER Joan Sullivan-Genthe
CHORUS MASTER: Grant Gershon
Saturday September 12, 2009 6:00 p.m.
Tuesday September 15, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Sunday September 20, 2009 2:00 p.m.
Tuesday September 22, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Friday September 25, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Sunday September 27, 2009 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday September 30, 2009 7:30 p.m.