‘Elixir of Love’ review at Lyric Opera

The magic potion at the heart of Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” is fake: cheap wine peddled by a dubious “doctor.” This miraculous brew, he says, can solve the knottiest romantic problem after a sip or two.

There is nothing faintly phony, however, about Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of the tenderly comic love story unveiled Sunday afternoon at the Lyric Opera House. Set in an Italian beach hotel in the 1950s, the production is heart-wrenching and high-spirited, an expert blend of gentle slapstick and sincere emotion.

Director Daniel Slater, designer Robert Innes Hopkins and conductor Enrique Mazzola clearly have a united, nuanced vision of this updating of the story of Nemorino, a poor waiter, pining after Adina, the town beauty. “Elixir of Love” had its premiere in 1832, but Lyric’s version, first seen at England’s Opera North, dispenses with both happy peasants and aristocratic period flourishes.

In this production Adina (Ailyn Pérez) owns the chic, beachside Hotel Adina. A striped canvas roof shelters the large patio set with airy, white metal chairs and tables. Tourists in 1950s fact — the women in mid-calf Chanel suits, complete-skirted sun dresses and kitten-heeled shoes, the men in Panama hats and comfortable suits — lounge at the tables, smoking, drinking and reading newspapers. Nemorino’s competitor for Adina, the handsome naval captain Belcore (Joshua Hopkins), blows into port on a zippy silver moped. The quack doctor, Dulcamara (Kyle Ketelsen), descends from the sky in a hot air balloon.

Kyle Ketelsen as the carnation-wearing Dulcamara (from left), Ailyn Perez as Adina and Joshua Hopkins as Belcore are shown in a scene from “The Elixir of Love” at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Cory Weaver

Mazzola, Lyric’s newly arrived music director, has focused on bel canto opera and early Verdi in recent years. He opened Lyric’s season Sept. 17 with a chillingly dark but never muddy reading of Verdi’s “Macbeth.” His “Elixir” offers a deft balance between bel canto’s crisp, high-flying, ornamented melodies and heftier early Verdi. At the end of Act I, Nemorino (Charles Castronovo) begs Adina not to marry Belcore. A lone, plaintive wind observe punctuates his ardent, long-lined song. Those rounded, occasional toots were faintly comic, but they fit seamlessly into the orchestral texture, never disrupting the overall mood. Likewise with the whirling flute phrases that often accent Adina’s arias. Satiny and high instead of hectic and brittle, they portrayed her as a thoughtful, freedom-loving young woman instead of a heartless flirt.

Lyric’s cast is stellar. Castronovo is one of the world’s finest tenors, and he brought the complete strength of his warm, virile voice to the role. The opera’s most famous aria, “Una furtiva lagrima (A single secret tear),” is a showcase for tenors, and Castronovo’s performance took us into the deepest recesses of its slow, uncluttered melodies. Aided by an empathic orchestra, his simple, lyrical phrases had room to breathe. promoted by Adina’s hidden tear, Nemorino begins to believe she might truly care for him. Savoring the silences between phrases, sending Donizetti’s heartfelt melodies to Lyric’s rafters, Castronovo revealed the complete force of Nemorino’s hopeful yearning.

And, like the rest of his cast, he is a skillful actor. Thoroughly soused after chugging the complete bottle of elixir, he was no longer the impoverished, timid, love-sick waiter. Donning sunglasses, tying his necktie around his head, for one fleeting, hilarious moment Nemorino was an Italian Elvis, one with absolutely no plans to leave the building.

Ailyn Pérez was Castronovo’s equal in every way. Her powerful, nimble soprano is bright and clear, but with a burnished sheen. She navigated Donizetti’s wide leaps and plunges with aplomb and flung his virtuoso flights into the air like so much golden confetti. Perky but business-like in a pink silk shantung pantsuit, her Adina was a young woman savoring her ability to flit among boyfriends. But we never doubted her warm heart.

With his high baritone, Hopkins’s Belcore was much more than a self-important lothario. Yes, he looked hot in his navy whites, and he loved the sound of his own resonant voice. But skillfully skirting slapstick, his naval captain was delightfully believable: your average, good-looking bro’ too clueless to recognize that his usual magic isn’t working. Ketelsen’s Dulcamara, however, noticed everything. Tailoring his quack remedies to the crowd — ridge cream for middle-aged ladies? Old codgers craving cough syrup? — he hawked his wares in a booming, fast-paced bass-baritone. nimble and light-footed, he was as cheerful and wily as a vaudeville barker. As tourists and townspeople, hotel staff and visiting sailors, the crisp, vigorous Lyric chorus additional to the fun.

For an audience battered by months of COVID-19, Lyric’s “Elixir” is a genuine tonic for the spirit.

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