There is a popular story—untrue, it should be mentioned—that opera composer Gaetano Donizetti was driven mad by a testy soprano at the Paris Opera who demonically insisted on musical changes to her role. In fact, Donizetti did die, insane, at the age of 50, in 1848, but it was not due to any prima donna protestations but rather from the effects of syphilis and what may have been bipolar disorder. This sad end runs tragically counter to his position in the music world as an easy-to-work-with composer who moved easily and prolifically between comic and serious subjects in the post-Rossini world of Italian opera.
That post-Rossini world of bel canto is the subject of Knoxville Opera’s two remaining productions this season—Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma in April and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore (“Elixir of Love”) this weekend. In the case of L’Elisir d’amore, KO takes on a comic opera that was wildly successful at its premiere in 1832, and one that remains one of the most often-produced operas today. The work is in the current repertory schedule at the Metropolitan Opera; Knoxville Opera last performed it in 2001.
Of course, it is no coincidence that KO’s production of Elixir of Love falls on Valentine’s Day—it is the quintessential romantic comedy. In it, a shy, young peasant, Nemorino, loves Adina, a wealthy landowner, but feels she is probably unattainable. A local military man, Sergeant Belcore, is less timid, though, and asks Adina to marry him. When a traveling peddler of patent medicines, Doctor Dulcamara, arrives in the village, Nemorino asks him if he has an “elixir of love” that would induce Adina to fall in love with him. Dulcamara complies with a potion that is, in fact, cheap Bordeaux wine. Emboldened by the “elixir,” Nemorino is certain of success. Needless to say—misunderstandings aside—hilarity ensues as the audience is clearly intended to root for the young lovers.
In the case of Elixir, one should be cautioned about confusing operatic comedy with less-than-important music. Although the opera was reportedly composed in two weeks, due to the cancellation of another production at the Teatro della Canobbiana, in Milan, Donizetti’s score is as cohesive as it is lively and warm, with an abundance of engaging melodies. Nemorino’s Act II aria, the famous “Una furtiva lagrima,” is at the top of the list of vehicles for lovesick tenors.
Stefania Dovhan, singing Adina in KO’s production this weekend, is not new to the role, having performed it with New York City Opera in 2011. Opposite her, the role of the fresh-faced, naïve Nemorino will be sung by tenor Joshua Kohl. The basso buffa role of Doctor Dulcamara will be sung by Rod Nelman, last seen here in 2003’s KO production of L’Italiana in Algeri. Sean Anderson, returning from last season’s Die Fledermaus, sings the blustery Belcore. Rounding out the cast are Emily Hagens as Giannetta and David Buchanan as Dulcamara’s assistant.
Also returning from Die Fledermaus is stage director Brian Deedrick; KO executive director Brian Salesky will conduct.
Sandwiched between the two performances of L’Elisir d’amore this weekend comes another musical event with romantic overtones—the Saturday evening performance by the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor. Unlike a comic opera, though, this romantic story was a bizarre real-life one, complex and baffling in every way, involving Tchaikovsky’s patroness, the wealthy Nadezhda von Meck, on one hand, and the composer’s disastrous relationship and two-week marriage to a love-struck and fanatical conservatory pupil, Antonina Ivanova Milyukov, on the other.
Musically, too, the work is a complex adventure, driven, no doubt, by the private, emotional turmoil in Tchaikovsky’s life. For those interested in delving deeper into the psychological underpinning for this major work, I strongly recommend the 6:45 p.m. lecture in room 210 of the Alumni Memorial Building that will precede the 7:30 p.m. concert in the James R. Cox Auditorium. James Fellenbaum will be the conductor.
For obvious but unfortunate economic reasons, the Knoxville classical-music scene rarely receives visits from true performance heavyweights these days. For that reason, Sunday afternoon’s performance by pianist André Watts, courtesy of the UT School of Music, seemed all the more significant. While his program of Scarlatti, Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, and Liszt, had no real surprises, his performance of them stunned and delighted the capacity crowd in the new Powell Recital Hall at the Haslam Music Center. While economic factors do not change, those that set priorities would do well to notice the invigorating effect that a major artist can have on the overall scene.