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‘The Elixir of Love’ is a perfect ‘starter opera’

Mark Kanny
gtrTKelixer041918
David Bachman
Dr. Dulcamara (Paolo Pecchioli) tries to entice Adina (Ekaterina Siurina) with a bottle of his marvelous elixir.

Magic potions may offer hope to the hopeless, but for centuries the ones they’ve really helped have been story tellers by serving as a crucial fulcrum for their plot development.

The popular romantic comedy “The Elixir of Love,” which will complete Pittsburgh Opera’s current season, even makes reference to another famous magic potion story. The tale of Tristan and Isolde takes about four minutes to tell in “Elixir,” whereas Richard Wagner’s opera on the same subject lasts about four hours.

“I think (“The Elixir of Love”) is the most perfect opera to introduce newcomers to opera,” says stage director Daniel Slater. “I took my daughter when she was five and she loved it. The story is so well told, and with such wit and life.”

Pittsburgh Opera will present four performances of Gaetano Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’amore” (The Elixir of Love) April 21-29 at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center.

Donizetti’s opera is about farm hand Nemorino’s attempt to win the hand of farm owner Adina. When con man Doctor Dulcamara comes to town to hawk his magic potion, Nemorino thinks it will help him succeed. Opera goers see the other forces at play in the happy outcome.

Slater’s staging updates the opera, written in 1832, to the 1950s.

“I wanted to make sure the characters don’t feel too distant from us,” he explains. “A little bit of distance is good, but too much distance can be problematic. Nineteenth century farmers are too far away. I wanted something closer.”

Slater picked the 1950s because he regards it as “the last innocent period in our history.” He picked Italy because the opera is sung in Italian. The set design was influenced by Italian cinema, including “La Dolce Vita” and “Il Postino.” In this staging Adina is a hotel owner and Nemorino a waiter. Setting the opera at a hotel preserves the original social structure of the opera and allows the stage to be filled with a wider array of characters, including tourists in glamorous costumes.

Tenor Dimitri Pittas, who earned rave reviews for previous performances of Nemorino, will star in Pittsburgh Opera’s production. He loves performing the role because it runs the full gamut of emotions.

“Nemorino takes on a lot of situations and out of them he’s a three-dimensional character,” says Pittas. “There is an arc to his character that is welcome. I feel really great, though drained, at the end of the night.”

Conductor Christian Capocaccia is excited about conducting “Elixir” for the first time, although he led an abridged version in school. He’s a fan of “bel canto,” a term that means beautiful singing or beautiful song, and is applied to operas of the early 19th century as well as to the style of singing those operas exemplify.

“Of course, all opera is about voice,” he says, “but ‘bel canto’ in particular really takes us to the expressive potential of the voice.”

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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