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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    L'elisir d'amore at Piedmont Opera

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    Curtain Calls, Opera Lively picture, featuring from left to right, Gregory Gerbrandt, David Blalock, Jodi Burns, Brian Banion, and Eliza Mandzik

    L'elisir d'amore, melodramma giocoso (dramatic/comic bel canto opera) in two acts, sung in Italian, with English surtitles
    Music by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)
    Libretto by Felice Romani, adapted from the French libretto by Eugene Scribe for the opera Le Philtre (1831) by Daniel François Auber, in its turn adapted from Silvio Malaperta’s Italian play Il Filtro. Premiered on May 12, 1832, at the Teatro alla Canobbiana, Milan, Italy.

    A Piedmont Opera production, on March 15 at 8 PM (this performance being reviewed here), March 17 at 2 PM, and March 19 at 7:30 PM [click here for tickets and info], at the Stevens Center of the UNC School of the Arts, in Winston-Salem, NC, USA

    James Allbritten conducts the Winston-Salem Symphony
    The Piedmont Opera Chorus
    Stage Director Cara Consilvio
    Lighting Designer Norman Coates
    Scenery courtesy of Virgina Opera, Scenic Designer Eduardo Sicango
    Costumes by Malabar Limited, Toronto; Costumes Coordinator Mahealani M. Jones
    Props Master Lauren Reinhartsen

    Cast

    Adina - Opera Lively interviewee Jodi Burns - read her intelligent answers to our questions by clicking [here]
    Nemorino - Opera Lively interviewee David Blalock - read his insightful answers to our questions by clicking [here]
    Doctor Dulcamara - Opera Lively interviewee (in previous productions) Brian Banion
    Belcore - Gregory Gerbrandt
    Giannetta - Eliza Mandzik
    Gaetano - Joseph Frisina
    The Notary - Art Bloom

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    Let us start this review by talking about L’elisir d’amore. Here we have a Donizetti who had 15 years of experience under his belt, after his debut in Venice with Enrico di Borgogna at age 21, and a series of money-grabbing commissions culminating with his first big success with Anna Bolena in Milan in 1830. Then, the impresario Alessandro Lanari rents the Teatro Canobbiana for the 1832 spring season, but one of his composers fails to deliver an opera to him in time for his expected run. He then commissions Donizetti, some ten weeks before the scheduled opening night. Prolific Felice Romani pens the libretto in 8 days, and Donizetti, under pressure from the impresario, writes the music in two to four weeks (biographers differ on this).

    Such a hastily written opera (although this kind of timeline wasn’t uncommon at the time) shouldn’t be that good, right? Well, it is Donizetti’s most performed opera, and today it ranks 13th as the most given opera world-wide. Its success started at the very opening night, in spite of a disastrous cast that featured a German soprano with diction difficulties, a stammering tenor, and in the words of Donizetti himself, a French baritone who “wasn’t worth much,” and a buffo “with the voice of a goat.” Given its unanimous good reception from critics and from the public alike, it enjoyed the status of most performed Italian opera for a good decade, and never stopped being popular ever since. Unlike other bel canto operas that focus on the soprano, L’elisir highlights admirably the tenor voice, featuring in "Una Furtiva Lagrima" one of the most celebrated tenor arias of all time, which launched Caruso’s career in 1900 at La Scala, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

    Why is it so good? Because of its admirable facility in switching from comedy to deep expression of emotions. The score is lively and light where it needs to be, and impassioned and poignant when this is what is called for. It goes from Rossini-inspired pater songs to the lyricism of the bassoon obbligato in its signature hit tune. By defining it as a melodramma giocoso instead of a plain buffo comedy, Donizetti impacts on it a range of emotions that is sure to please various segments of the public. There is enough pathos, but it is certainly very funny in many other moments. Its plot is simple and charming, and basically inspired by a form that is guaranteed to work: that of the Commedia dell’Arte, with its stock characters of a swaggering soldier, a cunning quack doctor, and the classic Pierrot (Nemorino) pining for the love of his fickle Colombina (Adina). The characters are aptly named: Adina is the Hebrew-derived name for “lovely,” Nemorino is a diminutive of the Latin Nemo, literally meaning “little nobody,” while Belcore is Italian for “handsome heart” and Dulcamara stands for “bittersweet” and is also the name of a traditional popular remedy of the time, used to treat all ailments.

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    In my several years covering the professional opera companies in North Carolina, I have never seen a Piedmont Opera production that I didn't like. I can't say the same for any of the other sister companies in our state, which have a high level of quality as well but occasionally do misfire. Well, Piedmont Opera never does. Attending an opera here is a guarantee of an entertaining and musically fulfilling evening, given that this rather small company, budget-wise, seems to perform miracles every time, with the resources they have available to them. Like I've said before, Piedmont Opera benefits from an artistic environment in Winston-Salem that is truly extraordinary, with the University of North Carolina School of the Arts around the corner providing an endless supply of gifted students and alumni of the Fletcher Opera Institute (who love to come back after graduation and perform for the professional company), and the very excellent Winston-Salem Symphony. This, added to the friendly and welcoming attitude of the staff under the leadership of the wonderful Maestro James Allbritten, ensures that Piedmont Opera occupies a warm spot in the heart of singers, so that the artists who sing for the company invariably put together a balanced and homogeneous ensemble. The chorus has been improving more and more over the years, and by now, I'd say that they are the best operatic chorus in our state.

    So, I was happy to head to Winston-Salem again with my wife, for the pleasure of the pre-opera dinner on the 10th floor of the Stevens Center, where we were delighted to meet again our opera-loving friends who patronize and support the company, which is having its 40th successful Season. The conversation was stimulating, the food was delicious, and the local Raffaldini winery as usual provided delicious red and wine bottles. For a $20 donation during intermission, patrons were able to get a bottle of one of their wines with a special label pretending to be the love potion of the title. I got one, and this will be a good souvenir to keep in my home wine bar.

    My always high expectations for this gem of an opera company were not disappointed. Musically, the show was almost perfect. First of all, Maestro Allbritten's conducting was expert as usual. For a bel canto opera, the conductor must support the singers and give them space to shine, keeping the orchestra dynamics under control in order to avoid smothering the singers. Those pianissimo moments were executed wonderfully by this gifted orchestra, with smooth transitions, fantastic instrumental playing, and enough lively energy when it was called for. Second, like I said, the chorus was just unbelievable, in this very chorus-rich piece.

    The four main singers were great, and the fifth most important but smaller role of Giannetta was also very well manned by the charming Eliza Mandzik who is making her Piedmont Opera debut as a fellow of the Fletcher Opera Institute studying under our good friend Dr. Marilyn Taylor - see what I mean regarding the artistic environment in Winston-Salem?

    Let us talk about the four principal singers. We've seen Brian Banion many times at Piedmont Opera (Silent Night, L'italiana in Algeri, Rigoletto, Der Fliegende Holländer), and tonight's counts as one of his best performances to date. It is not easy to beat his own high standards, but he did. His Dulcamara stole the show, with this fabulous artist being not only in excellent voice, but also displaying phenomenal acting. Brian was incredibly funny, bringing the house down with laughter, especially in his Senator duet with Adina ("Io son ricco e tu sei bella").

    Jodi Burns (an alumna of the Fletcher Institute and former student under Dr. Taylor) put together another rather perfect performance. It is notable that in this longish role (Adina sings a lot in this opera), the artist maintained her stamina until the end, given that the most difficult coloratura comes late in the show - less gifted sopranos might stumble with voice fatigue when they are called upon the acrobatic bel canto moments when Adina is trying to woo Nemorino back into her fold (starting with "Prendi, per me sei libero"). Jodi did it very well, and also demonstrated advanced acting in portraying the feminine charm that the libretto defines as her own version of a love potion: she doesn't need any help from magic chemicals, given that as a woman, she knows how to wrap men around her little finger. If you read her interview for Opera Lively, you'll see that she was successful in following her own plan to give a bit more gravitas to this character, so that her switch towards Nemorino doesn't feel like an empty plot device. Bravo, Jodi! Again, you were great!

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    David and Jodi as Nemorino and Adina, photo credit unknown, fair promotional use

    Gregory Gerbrandt was one of the best Belcores I've ever seen, both in voice and in acting: he was able to display very comically the cockiness and self-confidence of this character, and had enormous chemistry with his fellow cast members. His voice had great projection and good volume including in the lowest notes.

    David Blalock is another local product, having studied in Chapel Hill and Greensboro, which for those who are not familiar with North Carolina, are neighboring towns within a 60 miles radius of Winston-Salem. His Nemorino was great, with his acting delivering a rather accurate portrayal of the character's charming and honest naiveté. Voice-wise he did very well, but I do feel that there is room to improve the young singer's version of "Una furtiva lagrima" in terms of more work on the musical line, and more emotional explosion in the words "m'ama!" and "cielo!" One example was Matthew Polenzani's rendition at the Met in 2012 in which he went for delicacy and softness rather than for power (except in those two words), a very good choice that had the 4,000 members of the audience mesmerized in religious silence during his elegant Italianate phrasing sung with intimate piano dynamics. Anyway, this is a tough one, given how it's been done by the greatest of all singers like Caruso and Pavarotti, so it is hard to avoid comparisons, but I say the above as a matter of advice rather than criticism. David actually did a lot better with his first act aria, "Quanto è bella, quanto è cara." Oh, I should add that David had great chemistry with Jodi, as evidenced by the picture above.

    In terms of stage direction, Cara Consilvio had some very interesting touches. When Nemorino wants to remember the name of the character Adina was reading about he walks to the edge of the stage, looks up to the surtitles, and claps his hand asking for some help, and the surtitles then display "Isolde." I rarely recall laughing so hard in an operatic show! Another very comic moment was when the creators managed to include a line about meeting the artists at the nearby restaurant Jeffrey Adams on Fourth, where the company does the "Curtain Calls with the Artists" event.

    By the way, unfortunately this time I was unable to attend the post-show event at Jeffrey Adams on Fourth due to a peculiar reason. The show coincided with the ACC College Basketball Tournament semifinal game between Duke and UNC, the most storied rivalry in the college game. As a passionate fan of Duke Basketball (given that I'm in the faculty of Duke University School of Medicine), I had to record the game in order to come back home and watch it as if live, with no score spoilers. I was quite sure that if I walked into the bar, I'd learn the score, especially because our good David Blalock is also a passionate fan of the sport, and of UNC, haha. So, it is unfortunate that I missed the opportunity to mingle again with Maestro Allbritten and these wonderful artists, but I'm happy to report that Duke won by one point (74-73, what a game!). After all, it's probably good that I couldn't meet the artists in person after the show, because I'm currently a bit under the weather with an upper respiratory infection (I'm hoarse and started coughing mid-way through the show) and I'm sure opera artists with two more shows to sing wouldn't want any part of that!

    Back to opera - regarding the physical production, I'm not crazy about it. The scenery was a courtesy of Virginia Opera, but I wasn't entirely happy with the large picture frame around the center of the stage. I'd rather do without it, while keeping the background paintings (I tend to like more minimalistic stagings). When the scenery is produced locally, Piedmont Opera usually achieves better results - like the extremely beautiful visuals of the Flying Dutchman a few seasons back. Blocking and lighting were good.

    In summary, I grade the show A+, and strongly recommend to the Winston-Salem public and beyond, attendance to one of the two remaining performances of the run.

    Piedmont Opera has announced the next two productions. They intend to pay homage to women, and will present in the 2019/2020 season two works that feature strong women: Donizetti's Maria Stuarda on October 18, 20, and 22, 2019, and Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I on March 20, 22, and 24, 2020. These sound as must-sees!

    Before you go, dear readers, make sure you look at the two very compelling interviews with David and Jodi, who really did an excellent job detailing the characteristics of their roles. There is a link to each one, next to their Cast List names above.

    Thank you Piedmont Opera, for another great theatrical and musical evening!
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); March 16th, 2019 at 05:11 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    Very interesting historical background, particularly with Dulcamara being the name of a popular patent medicine. I wonder how many other operas have such little "in" jokes that listeners not familiar with a particular language or culture completely miss.

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