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Donizetti: The Elixir of Love. Andrew Haji, Simone Osborne, Andrew Shore, Gordon Bintner, Lauren Eberwein. COC Orchestra and Chorus. Yves Abel, conductor. Four Seasons Centre, Oct. 11, 2017.
After opening its 2017-18 season with Arabella, a comparative rarity, the Canadian Opera Company turns to the Donizetti warhorse, L’Elisir d’amore, as the other production for its fall season. This happy, light-hearted opera is full of catchy tunes, perfect for showing off fresh, youthful voices. It requires a small cast of principals, and it’s relatively short at two hours of music. Most importantly, it gives the audience that warm and fuzzy feeling as they leave the opera house, a perfect choice just when the weather turns chilly in Toronto.
Based on performance statistics of the last five season worldwide, L’Elisir d’amore is ranked #14 in popularity out of a total of 2,658 different operas. All told, 1,574 performances of L’Elisir were given worldwide in 378 productions. It’s also Donizetti’s most popular piece, beating out his Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale, and La fille du Regiment. Last staged by the COC in 1999 with the fabulous Danish soprano Henriette Bonde-Hansen as Adina, it’s high time for a revival. With this revival, the whole cast, with one exception, is Canadian.
The new production, with sets by Allen Moyer, comes from Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Originally set in 18th century Basque Country, it’s been time and place-shifted to WWI America, judging from the soldier’s uniforms. A white gazebo with Fourth of July red, white and blue buntings dominate the stage. To adapt for use north of the 49th parallel, the iconic “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster has been replaced by “Britons — Join Your Country’s Army! God Save the King!” plus a few small Red Ensigns, (Canada’s unofficial flag before the adoption of the Maple Leaf flag in the 1960’s) timidly covering a few of the buntings. O well, it’s the thought that counts.
Toronto-born and in demand worldwide, Canadian conductor Yves Abel is making his COC debut with this run. I first heard him conduct a beautiful Cosi fan tutte in Santa Fe a dozen years ago, and have been hoping that he would come back to conduct in his hometown. He has led the Met, Covent Garden, La Scala, Vienna, Paris, the list goes on. Then why has it taken this long for him to come to the COC? Well, better late than never! Abel will be awarded the “Rubies” (Opera Canada Awards) on October 30, and I’ll be reporting from the venue.
The performance tonight was impressive. Kudos to Andrew Haji as an absolutely endearing Nemorino. I’ve been following his career for years, starting with the early Rob Ford, the Opera days. His stunning win of the 2014 ‘s-Hertogenbosch International Vocal Competition put him on the operatic map. His “Una furtiva lagrima,” tonight, with its clarion yet sweet tone and gorgeous mezza voce, was the best I’ve heard. A big guy, he’s not self-conscious of his size, playing along with the physical comedy in Act Two with plenty of gusto, which made it even funnier. To my eyes and ears, Haji is born to sing Nemorino and it’ll undoubtedly become his signature role.
Canadian soprano Simone Osborne was a delightful Adina, a role ideally suited to her irrepressible stage persona and her light, soubrette-ish timbre. Canadian bass-baritone Gordon Bintner, who happens to be Osborne’s real-life partner, was a perfect Belcore, singing with warm tone and acting with just the right amount of sexy swagger. The single “import” was British character baritone Andrew Shore as Doctor Dulcamara. A veteran with a forty-year operatic career, Shore’s Dulcamara showcased his still-characterful voice, strong dramatic acuity and great comic timing. COC Ensemble mezzo-turned-soprano Lauren Eberwein was an impressive Giannetta, complete with a powerful high B.
Unlike many operas in the standard repertoire, contemporary stage directors have by and large refrained from doing anything too crazy with L’Elisir d’amore. Stage director James Robinson takes a non-interventive approach, preferring to let the marvellous score speak for itself. The relatively simple set, from the gazebo to the Ice Cream truck to Dr Dulcamara’s paraphernalia, is whimsical and light-hearted — just what the doctor ordered (pun intended). Yves Abel led the COC orchestra in a spirited, Italianate and totally idiomatic performance. Let’s hope the Canadian maestro will return in future seasons.
Additional performances Oct. 15, 17, 21, 27, 29, Nov. 2, 4. Four Seasons Centre. www.coc.ca
Note: In the original version of the review, the Red Ensigns on the gazebo was erroneously called Union Jacks by me. I was corrected by Professor Emeritus Joseph Wearing, of the Department of Politics and a former colleague at Trent University.