'Elixir' on the town green
Donizetti's "L'elisir d'amore" ("The Elixir of Love") has endured the 176 years since its premiere in Milan not because it reveals complex secrets about human nature but because it's a simple boy-meets-girl confection with a charming and subtly ingenious score that's full of air and light. He pines, she declines. He goes to a quack doctor and buys a love potion, which is really just a bottle of Bordeaux, but it all works out anyway. If a director can find a way to compellingly flesh out the cardboard characters, then all the better.

Donizetti's operas were tremendously popular in his own day, to the point of arousing the contempt of other composers. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians tells us that Schumann once huffed out of a Vienna performance of "L'elisir," announcing that Donizetti wrote "in Italian in Italy, [wished] in Paris to make himself French, and in Vienna to make himself German."

It was obviously meant as a nationalistic barb but director James Robinson has implicitly turned it into a compliment by playing up Donizetti's protean charms and portability. In this case, Robinson's enjoyable new production for Boston Lyric Opera, which opened Friday night at the Shubert Theatre, works because it doesn't try to plumb nonexistent depths, and because Robinson has gently updated and transferred the opera closer to home without doing violence to the simplicity of the story.

Donizetti's original takes place in the early 19th-century Italian countryside. Here Robinson has nestled it affectionately in a mythic American past, that is, on the village green of a generic rural town in the early 20th century. Shared with a slew of other opera companies, the production stands a few notches above recent BLO stagings in its look and its attention to detail. Its visuals are indebted to the paintings of Grant Wood, and it's full of imagery that evokes the early covers of Life magazine or the Saturday Evening Post. Nemorino, the simpleton with a pure heart, is now an ice cream salesman who pulls up in a converted Model T truck and dispenses cones as he sings. Allen Moyer's set is dominated by a large authentic-looking white gazebo festooned with the colors of the flag. This is the kind of town where it's always the Fourth of July.

The cast is cogently directed and vocally assured, though Eric Cutler as Nemorino is the only standout. He conveys his character's aw-shucks innocence and his overfull heart with a tenor that is strong, full, and agile, though somehow never as open and ringing as one might wish. His phrasing also had some bumpy moments early on but it mostly smoothed out by Act II, in time for his big aria "Una furtiva lagrima." Adina, the object of Nemorino's affections, was capably sung by Maria Kanyova with a light and accurate, if slightly edgy soprano. Neither James Westman as Belcore, the sergeant who momentarily sweeps Adina off her feet, nor Dale Travis as the doctor Dulcamara, had particularly large voices but both inhabited their characters with dramatic flair and good comic instincts. Ji Young Yang, making her company debut, was likable in the small role of the village girl Giannetta.

It seemed just right that the audience saved its standing ovation for the BLO's longtime music director Stephen Lord. This is the last production he conducts before leaving his post at the end of the season. Once again Lord presided in the pit with a sure and graceful hand, leading with all the sensitivity and suppleness that this music requires. The orchestra, no doubt full of players he has hand-picked over the years, rose to the occasion.
Jeremy Eichler, Boston Globe
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