- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

Having a tough time getting to first base with the girl you adore? Wouldn’t it be great if you could just drink a magic potion that makes her fall madly in love with you? A desperate young guy named Nemorino thinks so. As a result, he’s ready to buy a bottle of this heavenly concoction from the esteemed Dr. Dulcamara, a traveling snake oil salesman. And that’s what sets the plot in motion in the Washington National Opera’s charming production of Gaetano Donizetti’s delightful comic opera “L’Elisir d’Amore” (“The Elixir of Love”), which opened Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.

First performed in 1832, Donizetti’s popular work is an easily accessible and enjoyable evening for veteran opera fans and newbies alike. It’s full of nifty tunes, slapstick moments and stock characters whose predictable quirks don’t make them any less charming.

The WNO’s revival of its 1997 production of this opera is a charmer all the way, from its delightfully understated costuming to the finely calibrated bel canto of its principals. As the hapless, but ultimately successful Nemorino, tenor Paul Groves in particular turned in a magnificent, definitive performance on opening night.

With his constant look of wide-eyed innocence, Mr. Groves was the very embodiment of a bumbling country bumpkin with a heart of gold. But it’s his singing that proved to be something special. Bel canto roles can be unduly challenging for lead tenors. Heroic tenors have the power to blast the subtlety of such roles away and often do. More often, it’s the slight, lighter-voiced lyric tenors who are unsatisfyingly obliterated by the ensemble or the orchestra. Mr. Groves, however, avoids both of these pitfalls.

Mr. Groves’ merlot-smooth lyric voice possesses considerable power, allowing him to stand out in the crowd. But at the same time, his pinpoint control of breath, tone and phrasing lend great subtlety to his expressiveness, particularly in Nemorino’s signature aria “Una furtive lachrima” (“A furtive tear”). When he sang it two weeks ago at the WNO’s Golden Gala, he sent the audience into rapture. Likewise on Saturday it brought the opera to a lengthy halt.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast proved equally superb. As Nemorino’s elusive love interest, Adina, soprano Elizabeth Futral was a charmer, pure of tone and capable of executing coloratura ornamentation rapidly, accurately and without any sense of strain.

Baritone Marc Barrard, as the swaggering Sgt. Belcore, added an appropriately hefty touch to the ensemble, and soprano Christina Martos was surprisingly robust in the small role of Gianetta. Boffo buffo bass Steven Condy, a local favorite who perfected his singing not too long ago with the Wolf Trap Opera company, combined his heft and his uncanny skill in comic “patter” songs to create a broadly drawn and eminently funny Dulcamara. His comic appeal was further enhanced by the appearance of his miniature, look-alike assistant, a 19th-century flavor of Austin Powers’ “Mini-Me.”

Problems? A few. With some consistency, conductor Emmanuel Villaume pushed the orchestra a bit faster than his singers wanted to go. Miss Futral was placed too far backstage for her voice to carry during her initial aria. The lighting was often too dark. And some of the characters’ entrances and exits were logically inexplicable.

Nonetheless, the WNO has a winner on its hands with its current production. Donizetti has rarely sounded better in Washington, and this “L’elisir” will surely prove to be a memorable evening for passionate bel canto fans.

***

WHAT: Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Tomorrow, Thursday and April 12at 7:30 p.m.; April 15 and 17 at 7 p.m.; April 9 at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $45 to $290

INFORMATION: 202/295-2400 or visit www.dc-opera.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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