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Review: Opera Maine returns with a sparkling Elixir

by | Aug 24, 2021 | Culture

Sharky is a Maineiac from Portland rambling about all things art, and music of every stripe, including rock, progressive, jazz, symphonic, Lieder… and food, too. He writes regularly at Shark on Arts.

*****

They’re baaaaaack!   

Like nearly every performing arts organization had to over the past year, Opera Maine had to take what felt like an interminable intermission, foregoing its long planned Die Fliegende Hollander which was due to set sail last summer.  (General Director Dona D. Vaughn announced that, after this hiatus, our Dutchman shall arrive next season. Happy news, indeed!)

While I love Donizetti, I must admit that, since boyhood, L’elisir d’amore was an opera I avoided like, well, you know… that word. Over the years I’ve grown to enjoy, if not absolutely love it…  until this past Friday night. 

Vaughn’s decision to set L’elisir in 1960 Naples paid off magically. Against Donizetti’s score, Portland’s own Christopher Akerlind’s (Broadway’s Light in the Piazza, 110 in the Shade, Rocky, et al.) set and lighting design, along with Millie Hiibel’s marvelous costume design, gave more than a wink and a nod to the feel-good Italian classic cinema. One could almost sense Fellini lurking behind a curtain.  While I may have longed for Wagner, this sparkling comedy felt life affirming and was the perfect choice to bring back live opera to Maine.  La Dolce Vita, indeed!

In  Vaughn’s vision, the characters are just as stated in Romani’s libretto, with the exception of Nemorino, whose legs we see before meeting the rest of him. That is, he’s an auto mechanic (the classic grease monkey, his coveralls covered in the stuff) and that first appearance is beneath a bright green convertible. Bright, is in fact the color scheme throughout the production which positively glows and pulsates with life.

The role was splendidly sung by Joshua Wheeker who — at least in my opinion — stole the show whenever he was onstage, which was pretty much all the time. A beautiful lyric tenor with lots of ping — or squillo as we call it in Operaland — with a dynamic range that fit his Nemorino fit like a glove. That he gets the hit tune of the night, Una furtiva lagrima was a treat that earned Wheeker the greatest applause in a night that was positively (in the best sense of that word) clap happy.  A friend said, “he looked really familiar, like a friend of mine.” I explained it was because Wheeker’s Nemorino looks like every third guy at Ruski’s (a local West End tavern). This was a good thing. Wheeker was also a natural comedian, and his drunken escapades felt “real” as opposed to too frequently employed, stage drunkenness of the “Look at me, I’m drunk — and now I’m putting a lampshade on my head” school. It was, if there can be such a thing, a refreshing drunkenness. Like the rest of the cast, he had some pretty dandy dance moves, as well!

Adina was Sarah Tucker whose voice was full of surprises… all good ones. Moments of flighty, light coloratura delivered with pinpoint accuracy, which could melt into a creamy, more lyric sound. She could dial up a little acid in the tone when called for but made Adina rather charming, instead of the shrew she can sometimes be. Everything about Tucker’s Adina was a delight,

Baritone, Luis Alejandro Orozco has an absolutely beautiful voice, though at times his projection of it could get a little lost or covered in the mix of the ensemble which is not unusual for a young baritone, whose music is frequently ninety percent dead center of the sound world they’re inhabiting. Almost ridiculously handsome, with great comic flair, a sense of bel canto style, tremendous ego and confidence oozing out of every pore, Orozco makes Adina’s attraction to Belcore entirely believable. He was the bad guy you can’t help but love.

Gary Simpson’s Dulcamara did what all great Dulcamara’s do — make you almost embarrassed to be laughing so loudly in an opera house. Introduced with the roar of an offstage motorcycle (what no Vespa?) he enters walking the bike in with a wagon trailing behind him filled with bottles of Bordeaux… I mean his famous Elixir. He owned the role Friday and his arias, duet, asides to the house, and escape plans provoked genuine belly laughs.

Gianetta is not a major role in comparison to the central quartet, but here Shaina Martinez — in a sort of Rita Moreno mode, was captivating and hilarious from head to toe and beginning to end.

The splendid chorus, here almost ever present, were beautifully integrated into every scene, each creating a uniquely individual character that the production could not be imagined without. I never tire of saying that in over twenty years of watching her productions, NO ONE uses and moves a chorus quite like Vaughn can.

A shout out must go to the two old ladies on the bench watching, participating in, nodding… and nodding off to the shenanigans, antics and joy that was taking place before them.

Israel Gursky led a reading from the pit that made every note of this Elixir sparkle like bubbly, supporting and pacing his singers perfectly, and shading the score with nuance and love that spilled over us all.

I can’t have imagined a better opera to celebrate life, love and happiness after a year of… well, you know.

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