Saturday, November 29, 2008

Review: 'The Elixir of Love'

Virginia Opera, Joseph Walsh conducting
Nov. 28, Landmark Theater, Richmond

A lot of comedy is rooted in cruelty, and Donizetti’s "The Elixir of Love" may be the prime example of the cruelty joke in the opera repertory. Every principal character is a cynical, manipulative dirtball, with the sole exception of the male romantic lead, the love-struck bumpkin Nemorino, who, naturally, is the butt of all the jokes. And when all the highjinks have ensued, everyone lives happily ever after – even Nemorino, who has inherited a pile of money and the bride of his dreams, although we may safely guess that he won’t keep either any longer than she can help.

So goes one of the reputedly frothiest of comic operas. To the credit of Dorothy Danner, director of the current Virginia Opera production, this time the froth does not obscure the vinegary taste of the show. Aside from Joshua Kohl’s Nemorino, the characters’ egos are as fully inflated as the golden balloon that drifts over the stage, their insincerity as overripe as the grapes hanging from the ornate gold frame around which scenic designer Eduardo Sicangco built his set.

Characterization generally overrode vocalization in the first of two Richmond performances of this production. Kohl was a strong presence with a clear but youthfully unpolished voice. Jane Redding, as Adina, the dismissive object of Nemorino’s affection, spent much of the evening emphasizing coloratura over melody or projection; she found her balance in time for the lovers’ climactic love scene.

Stephen Hartley, as the self-absorbed Sergeant Belcore, and Todd Robinson, as the greedy quack Doctor Dulcamara, turned in satisfyingly comic characterizations, although they growled as much as they sang and tended to lag behind the beat in patter numbers.

The Virginia Opera Chorus was in good form theatrically – Danner kept the troupe moving and divertingly occupied in cartoonish fashion – and in better than usual form as a vocal ensemble.

Joseph Walsh, the company’s associate conductor, led a nicely animated performance by members of Hampton Roads’ Virginia Symphony, with an especially soulful solo from bassoonist Laura Leisring.

A repeat performance of "The Elixir of Love" begins at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 30 at the Landmark Theater, Laurel and Main streets in Richmond. Tickets: $22.50-$87.50. Details: (804) 262-8003 (Ticketmaster);