Elixir of Love – Potent Potion Produces Rare Riotous Romance

If you enjoy light-hearted opera by such composers as Offenbach, Lehar, Gilbert and Sullivan, you are bound to like Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. Particularly when it is sung in English with Donald Pippin’s libretto. And enjoy it, I did – but not quite as much as I expected to.

Let’s start with the facts:

Opera The Elixir of Love
Composer Gaetano Donizetti
Italian Libretto Felice Romani
English translation Donald Pippin
Nemorino Michael Belle
Adina Heidi Moss
Belcore Jason Sarten
Dulcamara Lee Strawn
Gianetta Megan Stetson
plus a chorus of 4 men and 4 women
Performance Pocket Opera
Venue Marines’ Memorial Theatre
Date February 27, 2011
Reviewer Philip Hodge (the Opera Nut)

The scene is a rustic village somewhere. Most of the villagers are ordinary folk, but two of them stand out: Adina and Nemorino.

Adina (Heidi Moss) tells Gianetta (Megan Stetson) about the magic potion

Adina (Heidi Moss) is young, rich, beautiful, and educated far and above the rest of the village – she can read and write. At the beginning of the opera she is reading to her friend Gianetta (Megan Stetson) about the magic elixir that Tristan gives to Isolde. She comments:

What potential in the potion
For the awkward and the shy!
Jungle passion, raw emotion
From a bottle you can buy!

Nemorino ( Michael Belle); headshot courtesy michaelbelletenor.com

Nemorino (Michael Belle), on the other hand, is young, poor, rugged, totally uneducated, and hopelessly in love with Adina – who only mocks him:

Though I long for her to love me,
I get nothing but disdain.
I can only sigh in vain.

Sgt. Belcore ( Jason Sarten)

Early in the opera two people descend upon the village and greatly roil its pastoral calm. First is Sgt. Belcore (Jason Sarten) who wastes no time in proposing marriage to Adina, supremely confident that she will accept:

One can hardly fail to notice
That you find me appetizing,
Justly so and not surprising:
I’m a sergeant. Need I say more?

Dr. Dulcamara (Lee Strawn), "known throughout the universe"

The other newcomer is the charlatan Dr. Dulcamara (Lee Strawn) who is equally modest:

My fame, importance, and expertise
I hardly need to mention.
A wonder man, I’m number one
In mastery of medicine.

The name is Dulcamara,
Familiar with all cases,
I’m the man with the aces,
And known throughout the universe
And … and …
And other places.
. . . . . . .
This bottle offers benefit;
By tasting now and then of it
A man well in his eighties,
Who’d given up on ladies,
Soon is the proud progenitor
Of a dozen on his knee,
And stronger than a stevedore
Of roughly twenty three.

It’s not hard to guess how the plot progresses. Nemorino asks Dulcamara if he has any of the potion that Tristan used to win Isolde. Dr. D. has obviously never heard of those legendary people, but assures Nemorino that he invented the potion and can let the peasant have a “guaranteed” bottle for an amount which just happens to be the amount of money Nemorino has. He tells him that the potion takes 24 hours to take effect, and in an aside to the audience, notes that he will be well out of town by then.

Nemorino consumes the entire bottle of “Elixir” which regardless of its promised effect on the morrow has the same immediate effect as if he had drunk a whole bottle of a cheap wine. Nemorino is so happy in his “knowledge” that Adina will be his tomorrow, that he only laughs when Sgt. Belcore woos Adina, she accepts, and they plan to marry next week. . . . Then comes the bomb. Belcore receives orders to leave tomorrow morning. The wedding is moved up to tonight. Nemorino is in a panic. He needs a more powerful elixir but he has no more money. End of Act I.

Needless to say everything turns out for the best in Act II, but you’ll have to see it yourself to find out the details. You can do that in a couple of ways. Pocket Opera will present it in Hawaii at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater Sunday, March 13. If you can’t make it to Hawaii then, you can order Donald Pippin’s libretto by going to the Pocket Opera Website or by calling them at 415-972-8930. A single libretto is $15 plus shipping, or you can order a book of seven Donizetti libretti including Elixir of Love for only $30 including shipping.

Photo: courtesy Pocket Opera

So, the plot is delightfully silly and the music is charming. As you can tell from the quoted passages above, Donald Pippin’s English words are a delight in themselves, and they also fit the music. What’s more, the singing and the acting are great. Michael Belle has a powerful tenor voice and seems to be a natural for the Nemorino role of a country bumpkin.

Dr. Dulcamara and Adina sing a divertisment to open Act II

Lee Strawn and Heidi Moss are frequent Pocket Opera performers. Last spring she blew my mind with her portrayal of the tragic heroine Violetta in La Traviata (Click here for my review); this week she proved that she is equally adept at the much lighter role of Adina. Strawn seems to get better every year in elderly comic roles – Dulcamara fits him like a glove.

Jason Sarten is a suitably bombastic Belcore. I particularly liked the insouciant way he accepts Adina’s choosing his rival; he just calmly looks to his other side and opens his arms to Adina’s friend Gianetta. Speaking of whom, it is always a pleasure to see and hear Megan Stetson. She’s done many small roles for Pocket Opera – I hope she’ll get a bigger one.

Stage Director Dianna Shuster; photo courtesy San Jose Opera

All in all, Stage Director Dianna Shuster put together an excellent production – not always easy with Pocket Opera’s small casts and limited budgets. One little thing that caught my attention was the seamless way that one of the villagers became Dulcamara’s assistant when the latter was called for.

Entrance to the Legion of Honor Palace, home of the Florence Gould Theatre

Which brings me to the very end of my table of facts at the beginning of this review – venue. For many years, Pocket Opera’s San Francisco performances were at the Florence Gould Theatre at the Legion of Honor Palace Museum in Lincoln Park. From my viewpoint, that venue was ideal. Getting there from Palo Alto involved a pleasant scenic drive, partly along the Pacific Ocean and completely avoiding downtown San Francisco. We would usually get there before noon when parking wasn’t too bad, have a leisurely lunch in their delightful cafÉ, and visit a room or two in the museum before going to our front row seats in the theater. Those front row seats were great. I could really see the expressions on the actors’ faces, but there was a wide aisle separating me from the stage (lots of leg room), and the stage was only a couple of feet higher than the floor. Also, the stage was small enough that even in the front row the music was well integrated.