Without doubt, theater needs a good shaking from time to time to keep things spontaneous, fresh, and alive. But does a comic opera about love, performed on Valentine’s Day, really need an actual wedding on stage during intermission to be relevant? Frankly, my own answer is a definite no, but Knoxville Opera did offer such a thing between the acts of its Friday evening performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (“Elixir of Love”). While I certainly wish the couple happiness, the ceremony, performed by County Mayor Tim Burchett, had the air of a less-than-genuine marketing intrusion, rather than what was the obviously intended romantic gesture on a symbolic evening.
An uncomfortable intermission notwithstanding, Knoxville Opera took excellent advantage of its February production weekend falling on Valentine’s Day this year to bring Elixir of Love into town, offering up its wares of music, romance, and comedy much like the opera’s patent-medicine peddler. However, this Elixir was no gulp of cheap wine or bogus concoction, but rather an invigorating and entertaining elixir of splendid performances from a splendid cast.
With the opera’s locale condensed to a country village square, stage director Brian Deedrick formed a solid backbone around energetic and flavorful business for the villagers (the Knoxville Opera Chorus), carefully bringing focus to the leads as needed. Probably dictated by the acquired set for the production, the arrival of the elixir peddler, Dr. Dulcamara, was by stage balloon, which didn’t quite have the excitement of a fanciful peddler’s cart-type vehicle found in many productions. Perhaps as an extension of this, Deedrick gave Dulcamara’s assistant (performed by David Buchanan) the name of the Kid and a completely mute, deadpan Buster Keaton-like persona that worked marvelously.
As the naïve bumpkin Nemorino, who is helplessly in love with Adina, tenor Joshua Kohl was the vocal standout of the evening. The clarity of his voice throughout his range was impressive and satisfying, as was his surprising power at moments of lovelorn anguish. Dramatically, he was quite successful in creating an appealing and sympathetic character, as well as showing the conflict between passivity and romantic determination. Needless to say, he made the opera’s signature aria, “Una furtiva lagrima,” exceedingly memorable, as it should be. Kudos also go to KSO bassoonist Aaron Apaza for the aria’s bittersweet accompaniment.
Singing the role of Adina, the somewhat capricious wealthy farm owner and the target of Nemorino’s affections, was soprano Stefania Dovhan. While Adina’s motivations are a bit hard to fathom, Dovhan gave refreshing sparkle and life to the character. Her voice is gorgeously creamy, with a thrilling edge, although it seemed her Act I music lacked a bit of reach and detail in the Tennessee Theatre. All appeared corrected in Act II; her “Prendi, per me sei libero,” in which she realizes her love for Nemorino, was articulated perfectly.
The other suitor of Adina, the narcissistic Sgt. Belcore, was given tremendous comic swagger by baritone Sean Anderson, previously seen by KO audiences in last season’s Die Fledermaus. Anderson, sporting a Robert Goulet mustache and the air of a self-absorbed lounge singer, was a joy to watch. Musically, his voice was rich and solid, a match for his blustery character.
In many productions, the role of Dr. Dulcamara steals the show, to the delight of the audience. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen in this one. Bass-baritone Rod Nelman as the elixir peddler was vocally strong, with a considerable degree of lyricism. Yet his comic energy, the basis for the character, seemed deliberately constrained and underplayed, oddly reducing the role to less than secondary status. Perhaps some of the blame lay with the colorful hat that covered Nelman’s eyes in Act I.
The secondary role of Adina’s friend Giannetta was sung and portrayed beautifully by Emily Hagens. As usual, KO executive director Brian Salesky was in the pit with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, offering up a gentle yet crisp and well-played performance of Donizetti’s enjoyable score.