Friday, October 31, 2008

San Francisco Opera's Elixir of Love

October 29, 2008

Toward the end of a season packed with ambition but also heavy with tragedy, SFO has landed on a welcome respite, a vivacious production of Donizett's L'Elisir, recast in 1914 Napa Valley and featuring the opera world's newest superstar, tenor Ramon Vargas.

Vargas announced his presence the moment he opened his mouth, revealing a strong, gorgeous lyric tone constructed of honey and an overriding tangerine warmth (forgive me if I wax poetic). He is Nemorino, of course, the sad pursuer of the popular girl, Adina, and this first introduction comes courtesy of his cavatina, "Quanto e bella!" in which he describes his sad plight.

Our Adina is Albanian soprano Inva Mula, who possesses the notable ability (and control) to take her lines to a crystalline lightness and grow them back out, fetchingly revealed in her first duet with Nemorino, "Chiedi, all'aura lusinghiera."

The supporting roles are no less stocked with talent. Italian baritone Giorgio Cauduro is all self-involvement and pomp as sergeant Belcore, determined to whisk away the charming Adina; in the second-act military duet with Nemorino, "Venti scudi," Cauduro demonstrates remarkable breath control and separation. Italian bass-baritone Allessandro Corbelli, meanwhile, flies through the rapid-fire patters of the potion-maker Dulcamara, and lends his character a finely tuned weasely presence. Korean soprano Ji Young Yang continues to make her bid as Next Adler Fellow to Make it Big, performing the town gossip, Giannetta, with beautifully direct lines and an assured stage presence.

Director James Robinson takes the Napa Valley setting and has loads of fun with it. The opening scene is a harvest festival, Adina wearing the witty title of "Crush Queen." The local youths enter as a hyped-up football squad, tossing balls around the stage, working on a statue-of-liberty play with Belcore and burying Nemorino under a dogpile tackle. The chorus is as lively as ever, painting little Norman Rockwell vignettes in the production's backgrounds, and the vehicular cast is just as colorful, Dulcamara rolling in on a motorcycle with sidecar, Nemorino entering in an ice cream truck.

Speaking of ice cream, what a pleasure to see SFO using genuine substances onstage. Nemorino doles out a dozen actual ice cream cones during the first act, Belcore smokes cigarettes that actually smoke, and they even have the thoroughness to switch the actual identity of the "elixir" from a cheap bordeaux to a cheap cabernet - much more suited to Napa.

But let's get back to Vargas, who doubles his value by adding a fine comic sense to that God-blessed throat. Vargas's face is immensely expressive, he has a lovely sense for slapstick, and mostly (as my companion put it), he just seems extremely comfortable in his own skin. At one point, he had Nemorino slicing up an apple and tossing the chunks into the air, attempting to catch them in his mouth, all during a rather involved aria - sometimes mid-note! Never mind that he missed every chunk, that only added to the gag.

When Vargas came out for the final scene, suitcase in hand, and the bassoon started into the melody of "Una furtive lagrima," I couldn't quite believe it. I had completely forgotten the context of this famed aria (hey, critics can't remember everything), and realized that Donizetti and Vargas were going to interrupt all this fine farce to offer up a gorgeous aria full of pathos. It just seemed ridiculously generous, and the results were almost predictable: one of the most stirring, rapturous moments of the season, the kind of moment that builds legends.

Through Nov. 26, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, $15-$290, 415/864-3330,

Photo: Ramon Vargas. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

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