Los Angeles Opera Review: THE ELIXIR OF LOVE (Pacific Opera Project at The Highland Park Ebell Club)

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by Tony Frankel on February 18, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


At first it seemed as though a tragic circumstance had befallen Pacific Opera Project’s production of The Elixir of Love last night. One hour before the show, at the height of a heavy storm, a transformer blew in front of the Highland Park Ebell Club; there would definitely be no electricity for the show. A stroke of luck came when a nearby business loaned a not-too-noisy generator to Artistic Director, whiz kid, and polymath Josh Shaw, who set up a few flood lights as the calm and communal cast and crew went about putting up a show for the dewy patrons (photo below). At one point during the show, the generator ran out of gas; as it was refilled, viewers lit the stage with cell phone flashlights (think fluorescent candlelight). The singers never missed a beat negotiating a multi-level set, and Nicholas Gilmore’s upstage orchestra didn’t lose its place.

Take a note, America. You can turn tragic into magic.

But then there’s the show itself. Some artistic works are such a product of their time that it is difficult for later generations to understand them without spending a considerable amount of time studying the work’s context. Others are immediately recognizable because they resonate easily with contemporary audiences. Gaetano Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love (L’elisir d’amore) is a superlative example of the latter. Mr. Shaw went one step further. He turned the late-eighteenth century Basque village into an homage to the 1950s, specifically a diner where the kids hang out a la American Graffiti, infusing his production with nostalgia.

His supertitles (which actually worked during the blackout!), transformed from Felice Romani’s libretto, referenced all things Eisenhower era: “See ya later, alligator”, “doofus”, and every cliché and songtitle you can think of from that time found their way into his very funny translation (with rhymes on top of it, which gets MAJOR brownie points from me). At one point, director Shaw had girls gossiping on their phones as in Bye, Bye, Birdie (1960) (OK, more brownie points). Just as exciting was costumer Maggie Green’s threads and Amy Lawrence’s craze-filled choreography, executed with aplomb by one of the most engaging ensembles on record (and being at close range, it’s a treat to decipher the magnificence of each voice).

An entertaining romantic comedy, The Elixir of Love is a far cry from the romantic tragedy of Tristan and Isolde that the opera references at the beginning. While both stories have similar plots, their moods are quite different. Donizetti’s opera tells the story of how a wealthy young woman, Adina (in this case, an educated hottie) falls in love with a besotted young man, Nemorino (a soda jerk here). Adina does not return Nemorino’s love, but instead accepts the cocksure advances of the swaggering Sergeant Belcore, who looks primed and ready for the Korean War.

When the potion-peddling Dulcamara, a Little Richard doppleganger, comes to town promising to cure all ills, Nemorino seizes his chance to win over Adina by purchasing the story’s titular love elixir (which Dulcamara makes with condiments from the counter). Although the enterprising fraudster’s potion is ineffective, Dulcamara sets in motion events that lead to Adina’s change of heart and the triumph of Nemorino. Due to the story’s singular focus and simple plot, it is easy to follow, understand and remember, yet with enough engaging twists and turns to make the story burn rubber.

It’s a privilege to see such an impressive and talented cast presented in an intimate space for such a low price (a table for 2 with charcuterie plate and wine is only $65). Aside from the awesome vocals, everyone is extraordinarily well cast. You’ll go ape over Kyle Patterson, who gives a virtuosic performance as Nemorino, combining dramatic expression and comedic timing with strong presence and vocal power. His soaring and lyrical tenor effortlessly switches between comic banter and heartfelt yearning, reaching its highest expression in Donizetti’s beloved aria “Una furtiva lagrima.”

Clear, powerful soprano Amanda Kingston makes a captivating and sly Adina; her stature over Patterson makes them seem an unlikely pair, which makes the ending all the happier. Not only do they appear right together, but their voices blend beautifully and harmoniously during the opera’s many delightful duets. Rocky Sellers as Dulcamara is a surprisingly likeable huckster, and he really rocks that stage; his bass is remarkably well-suited to sing the rapid cadences and silly accents of his role. As Belcore, the 6’10” Andrew Potter deftly meshes a macho persona with a lyrical manner so as to make any schoolgirl or hardened critic swoon. (His classy chassis and the Fonzie-esque “He-e-e-y”s are especially effective.) It’s a shame that we don’t see this type of acting in big opera productions.

This astoundingly enjoyable production easily proves why Donizetti’s opera was one of the most frequently performed of its time. This fab outing will not only cement its reputation among devotees, but will gain new admirers. This is a nifty way to introduce opera to the cats in your life.

production photos by Martha Benedict
blackout photo by Josh Shaw

The Elixir of Love
Pacific Opera Project
The Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S. Avenue 57
ends on February 25, 2017
for tickets, call 323.739.6122 or visit POP

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