“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Shakespeare’s observation applies as much to effective artistic strategy as to human psychology. Even the sunniest of love stories needs complications to get the audience to invest its attention. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made Seattle Opera confront some unprecedented curveballs in order to realize its new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s lighthearted, seductively tuneful opera “The Elixir of Love.”
This marks the company’s most ambitious undertaking since being forced last spring to make the first in a round of cancellations resulting from Gov. Jay Inslee’s prohibition of live entertainment. Seattle Opera presents its specially adapted version of “Elixir” as an online video stream that will be available to all season subscribers at seattleopera.org starting Nov. 13 and accessible until Dec. 4.
Apart from some streamed recitals earlier this fall and a series of excerpts from “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” — highlights from the double bill scheduled to launch the season before coronavirus struck — “Elixir” will moreover be the first fully staged production actually programmed by general director Christina Scheppelmann. The 2019-20 season was already in place by the time she began her tenure in August 2019, so this is the first season to carry Scheppelmann’s stamp at Seattle Opera.
“Everybody is trying to find a way to have a presence — whether it’s doing concerts and interviews or running old archival productions,” said stage director David Gately during a recent telephone interview. “But Christina has a vision about this. She said: ‘We’re going to do opera and have a new product that isn’t just a combinations of things.’”
So instead of a performance featuring static singers, Gately has collaborated with film director and documentarian Kyle Seago to create a novel experience intended to be fully immersive. This “Elixir” is neither concert opera nor a filmed live performance such as you might see at a The Met: Live in HD cinema screening. Over three days of taping, the singers performed in Gately’s staging, which was recorded by three cameras plus a steady cam at the front of the stage to bring the audience directly into the story at certain moments.
Seago, who makes his Seattle Opera debut with “Elixir,” describes it as “a staged opera film that has all the elements of traditional film and will be edited like a film, as opposed to a stage production that is being filmed.” As a hybrid between live opera and edited video capture, he sees it as a potential way to open up the art to a wider audience.
But adapting to the online medium wasn’t the only challenge to surmount. The entire team involved in creating this “Elixir” has had to comply with a strict set of protocols mandated by public health officials and overseen by the relevant unions. Everyone is tested every three days, and no prop can be handled by more than one character without being changed out. Characters onstage must be separated by 20 feet when singing.
Donizetti’s 1832 standard recounts the efforts of a lovestruck, naive peasant, Nemorino, to win the heart of the privileged landowner Adina. His eagerness makes him all the more susceptible to the pitch of a snake oil salesman and his alleged love potion — the elixir of the title.
The lovers are portrayed by soprano Madison Leonard and tenor Andrew Stenson. “The teasing and testing and flirting actually work well with the forced distances,” said Leonard in a phone conversation between rehearsals. As for the climactic moment when they should be locked in embrace after her confession of love: “There’s a staging update that makes for a funny obstacle at the last moment.” Stenson added that his colleague’s stage presence is so vivid that “it’s all I need to feel a very strong and genuine reaction. I think it also has to do with being able to sing again with other people for the first time in months. All of these things have been so intensely gratifying.”
Nemorino’s all-too-familiar predicament, coupled with Donizetti’s charming and touching musical characterizations, makes “Elixir” an appealing gateway for opera newcomers. At the same time, it’s a perennial delight for lovers of bel canto, a special type of opera that prizes the beauty of the singing voice above all.
That’s one reason “Elixir” proved so amenable to Seattle Opera’s custom tailoring to make it “corona-safe.” In lieu of a full orchestra, the score has been adapted for two pianos (David McDade and Jay Rosendaal), along with some spare accompaniment at certain moments by other instrumentalists (harp, bassoon and trumpet).
The choral parts have also been shorn away, reducing the cast to five singers. Still, said conductor Carlo Montanaro, “I am treating this like a normal production and do what I normally would do to guide all the soloists. This is an important signal for the public to show that we can still do live performance while keeping everyone safe. And the technology we are developing now in this moment of crisis is something we can use for a future project.”