NEXT STOP, FOUNTAIN CITY: Lyric Opera takes on sly, good-natured updating of Donizetti classic

By Paul Horsley

Imagine the tale: A city slicker blows into a small town hoping to sell dubious goods to gullible farmers. Some are fooled, but not the bookish heroine, who is the cleverest and, it turns out, the most interesting woman in town. Sound familiar? If the plot of The Elixir of Love resembles a Broadway musical you can name, you’re probably already on board for the Lyric Opera’s production of Donizetti’s 1832 opera, which runs from March 12th through the 20th at the Kauffman Center.

In fact it didn’t take long for director James Robinson and his team, including veteran set designer Allen Moyer, to draw the obvious parallel. “We got this idea of setting it in middle America, a sort of Anytown, U.S.A.,” said James, who has been artistic director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis since 2009 and is making his Lyric directing debut. “And we realized it has a lot in common with The Music Man.” Once the idea was spawned, he said, the piece quickly fell into place. “I’ve always thought of these Donizetti comedies as being in a direct line with American musicals anyway.”

Photos by Ken Howard / Courtesy of Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Photos by Ken Howard, Opera Theatre of St. Louis

So Donizetti’s Adina became Marian the Librarian (sort of), Dulcamara the elixir salesman became a version of Harold Hill, and we get an ice-cream salesman (Nemorino) and an army recruiter (Belcore). For Allen and the rest of the team, which included the late costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, the transition from Italian village to small-town Iowa was a natural. “Marty and I tended to look at a lot of the world through the lens of musical comedy,” said Allen, who works in opera, theater and dance not only with James but with Christopher Alden, Mark Morris and other leading directors of our time.

Now all that the team needed was a “look,” and Allen’s imagination was immediately sparked by Grant Wood’s imagery. “There’s something about his work that seems so honest and American and straightforward,” he said, “and that’s what I was looking for. The ‘cleanness’ to it, which I thought color-wise would fit the comedy and the sort of innocence of it.” Inspired by Wood and to some extent Thomas Hart Benton, Allen created gorgeous designs reminiscent of America in the years just before World War I. There’s even a Model T and a motorbike with sidecar. The 2007 premiere at Opera Colorado was a minor sensation, and the production has traveled to several other cities. “We believe audiences will be delighted by this new take on the piece,” said Lyric General Director Deborah Sandler.

Photo by Ken Howard for Opera Theatre of St. Louis (2)

Not every opera is a candidate for an updating, but Elixir has a such a generic quality that it benefitted from a bit of clarity, James said, underscoring that the transition was effected without changing Felice Romani’s libretto. “For me the opera lacked specific elements: I was always curious about who these people really are, and what it is that makes them tick.” Adina, for example, is more interesting when played as the most highly schooled woman in the village, rather than as a flighty ice queen.

“She has to be the educated person in town, so we think of her as the librarian in this production,” James said. “She’s knowledgeable, she’s smart. And that’s the way everybody views her, particularly Nemorino. She’s also just a little uptight, but not mean. … I think that it gives her a little more complexity, as opposed to her just being sort of a wealthy widowed landowner.”

Moving the opera from a nondescript Italian village was a welcome change for Allen as well. In the original, the town “comes off as being a kind of generic Italian country village,” he said. “Mostly what we know about Italian country villages is when Lucy and Ethel went to Italy, and Lucy was squashing grapes. So we don’t have a strong sense of what that is. And with comedies it only ever helps to make things more specific. The more specific they are, the easier it is for an audience to empathize with the characters.”

James’ and Allen’s collaborations, which have included Nixon in China, Champion and 27 in St. Louis, are known nationwide for their intelligence, whimsy and dazzling but always tasteful visuals. Kansas City audiences saw their work a few years back in the version of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio set on a train, which included designs by Allen (even though James was not able to direct it here at the time). “Allen’s the best designer I know,” James said. “He does everything with great authority and great authenticity. … He’s so incredibly knowledgeable about so many things that he can do realistic things and he can do very abstract things, meditations on things. And that’s real talent.”

For his part, James is recognized as one of the visionaries of American opera, with directing credits at New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Santa Fe Opera and Minnesota Opera, among many others. His collaborations with Allen are among the most recognizable productions in opera. “These relationships are almost like marriages,” Allen said. “With people that you’ve worked with, you develop a different way of working. There’s a vocabulary that you develop over the years that actually makes for short cuts. Because each really knows how the other thinks.”

The Elixir of Love stars Susannah Biller (Adina), Norman Reinhardt (Nemorino), Patrick Carfizzi (Dulcamara), Elliot Madore (Belcore) and Ashley Yvonne Wheat (Gianetta). Christopher Allen conducts.

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For tickets and information call 816-471-7344 or go to kcopera.org.

To reach Paul Horsley send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).