Stage Director
Sacramento Opera's 'Elixir of Love' gains a Napa flavor
There's no mystery why opera director Jose Maria Condemi is a rising star in the opera world.

His recent productions at major opera houses in San Francisco and Chicago are marked by a crisp, theatrical feel. And no trend is more hot right now in opera than the marriage of singing and theater.

Given Condemi's reputation, the Sacramento Opera's upcoming production of Gaetano Donizetti's "Elixir of Love" should display some high theatrical wattage.

"I don't make the distinction that opera is one thing and theater is another," said Condemi. "The craft is the same. It's no different from directing Mamet or Chekhov."

A savvy theatricality is never a bad thing when employed in a bright and buoyant bel canto opera like "Elixir." The opera begins a three-night run at the Community Center Theater on Friday. Its cast includes soprano Katrina Thurman in the role of Adina, tenor Igor Vieira as Dulcamara, baritone David Small as Belcore and Dinyar Vania as Nemorino. Music director Timm Rolek will conduct.

In Sacramento, Condemi will update "Elixir" from its original setting of a Basque village in the late 19th century to Napa Valley in the 1940s.

"We felt this was the right time period," said Condemi. Central to that decision was that it localizes the setting for Sacramento audiences, and the setting also mirrors the small town outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Condemi grew up.

Condemi comes to Sacramento fresh from directing a new Chicago Lyric Opera production of "Ernani." Condemi drew rave reviews for that production, and the accolades were many for his direction of the San Francisco Opera's production of "Tosca" last June. Next summer, Condemi will direct that company's revival of Gounod's "Faust."

For Rolek, snagging Condemi to direct in Sacramento was like reaching for prized fruit. It turned into a game of perseverance. He first saw Condemi's work with the Merola Opera program several years ago and has been after him ever since.

"I thought his comic work was brilliant; it was very specific and physical," Rolek said.

But conflicting schedules always got in the way of a booking, until a small opening in Condemi's schedule coincided with the Sacramento Opera's performance schedule this year.

"Elixir" tells the lyrical tale of the farmer Nemorino, who is in love with Adina, a rich landowner. The drama and comedy unfold when Nemorino, who wishes to enchant Adina, purchases a love potion from Dulcamara, a charlatan doctor.

Condemi knows the work well. He made his professional directorial debut with "Elixir" in 1999, when he directed it for Opera San Jose. Last year, he reconceived and directed the San Francisco Opera production of "Elixir of Love for Families."

"He brought an 'Elixir' production for families down to a two-hour length and he staged it in English rather than Italian," said San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley. "And I thought he did very well with that."

So well, in fact, that Gockley signed him to direct "Faust" in June, and will likely tap him again for a production in the 2010-11 season.

"What he's doing is creating the theater component of opera," Gockley said.

For "Faust," Condemi will direct a Frank Corsaro production from the Chicago Lyric Opera. But Gockley feels that Condemi is ready to take a step up in his career.

"The goal is for a guy like that to get to the point where people are willing to give him the opportunity to create newly conceived and newly designed productions," Gockley said.

The cast of "Elixir," which just finished its first week of rehearsal, is sold on Condemi's directing style.

"A lot of times, what you get in opera is kind of like a wash of staging and direction," said soprano Thurman. "But Jose really tries to take the time to have specific human emotions and reactions built in. ... There are few directors that do that."

To hear singers talk about his direction is to realize that Condemi is an "actor's director."

"He has this way of directing that I like. He gives you an idea and lets you explore it," said Vieira. "And if that doesn't work with the production, he steps in and gives you new ideas and tries to work with you. For a performer, this is important as it makes you feel as if you're part of the production."

Condemi grew up in the small agricultural town of San Andrés de Giles, an hour northwest of Buenos Aires. He studied the piano from age 6 and was involved in theater productions growing up.

Upon graduating from high school, Condemi's professional inclination was the pursuit of a medical degree. However, an obsessive love for opera was just about to blossom. It happened at age 18, when he first heard the final duet from a recording of Bizet's "Carmen" playing at a record store.

"I got the CD, which were excerpts, then I got the whole opera, and that sort of multiplied into hundreds and hundreds of recordings. Opera soon took over my life," he said.

That obsession was key to Condemi's choice to quit medical school, which he had been attending for three years.

"That was not an easy decision to make," he said.

He enrolled in the undergraduate degree program in opera stage direction at Buenos Aires' Teatro Colón - Argentina's closest equivalent to our Metropolitan Opera.

"I really didn't know what I was getting myself into," said Condemi. "I didn't have an idea what an opera director did. I just knew I had to do it."

Condemi spent five years in the program, which is an adjunct to the opera house and its productions.

When he graduated, Condemi realized that opportunities in Argentina for a fledgling opera director were few. He soon emigrated to the U.S. to pursue a graduate degree in directing from the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. It was there that he forged his interest in combining theater and opera.

Upon graduation, Condemi's star rose quickly, with acceptance into the San Francisco Opera's Merola Opera Program in 1999 and an Adler Fellowship in stage direction in 2001 and 2002.

That fellowship had never before been offered to anyone but singers.

"I was the first and last director. ... They've never offered it to any director since," Condemi said.

As a result, he got to direct many Merola productions and served as associate director to the company's mainstage productions.

This, in turn, has given Condemi a solid framework from which to draw a crisp theatrical vision of a bel canto opera like "Elixir."

"Sometimes there's a prejudice against the bel canto repertoire," Condemi said. "But I never felt that way. Yes, 'Elixir' is a simple story, but that does not mean it's not an interesting one."

"I find that if you scratch a little under the surface of this work you'll find a lot of truth within."

Edward Ortiz, Sacremento Bee
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