Opera review

Donizetti’s ‘The Elixir of Love’

Seattle Opera’s opening-night stream from McCaw Hall of its new production; available for streaming until Dec. 4 to holders of season subscriptions (starting at $162 for a spring season that may be modified, and which include access to the fall virtual programs). Info: seattleopera.org

While the world pins its hope on a coronavirus vaccine, another elixir is getting top billing at Seattle Opera.

The company unveiled its new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Elixir Love” via its online streaming platform on Nov. 13. Spared the battle against traffic to make curtain time, viewers can enjoy Seattle Opera’s first staged offering of the season at leisure and on their own schedule until Dec. 4. And the show goes on, unhampered by the latest coronavirus restrictions. What is being streamed is the edited filming of a live performance (no audience) from mid-October on the McCaw Hall stage.

No one is seriously claiming that the technology enabling this — itself another kind of elixir for our unsettled times — can replace the richness of a shared live performance. The special charm of this version is that instead of pretending to be a substitute, it distills the essence of Donizetti’s gentle comedy of love awakened into a new format that acknowledges the difference.

The opera from 1832, a repertoire favorite, is of relatively modest dimensions to begin with. Seattle Opera has downsized “Elixir” into a piece of chamber intimacy. Gone are the chorus and full orchestra. The cast is limited to six, with one of the characters filling out the narrative gaps caused by these cuts with brief interpolations spoken in English; everything else is sung in the original Italian (translated, with a generous sprinkling of in-jokes, into subtitles by dramaturge Jonathan Dean).

David McDade and Jay Rozendaal take the place of the orchestra, performing a brand-new transcription for two pianos. Wearing masks and situated upstage, amid the scenery, they are one of several elements that break the fourth wall. Director David Gately cleverly uses this teasing violation of convention; against Donizetti’s (and librettist Felice Romani’s) fairy-tale, happy-ending optimism, it juxtaposes a reminder of the pandemic that has necessitated this compromised return to the opera house.

With scenery by Doug Provost and costumes by Liesl Gatcheco, the fairy tale is given a rural, mid-20th-century setting here, ostensibly in Italy. But the ambience feels closer to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” thanks to the added narrator parts that frame the show. In a silent acting role, David Hsieh fills in for the crowd we would normally see reacting to Dulcamara, the traveling charlatan who peddles cheap wine as a love potion (Patrick Carfizzi, in an ebulliently P.T. Barnum-esque portrayal). Soprano Tess Altiveros, as a jaded, cigarette-smoking Giannetta, similarly embodies the implied group of village women.

Tenor Andrew Stenson endearingly highlights the flustered frustration of the gullible peasant Nemorino, who pines for the landowner Adina. You can hear the tension and anguish of his plight even in the most meltingly lyrical moments. Shining a radiant cheerfulness on his self-centered gloom, soprano Madison Leonard makes Adina a heroine with agency, well aware of the roles she is playing. The close-ups by film director Kyle Seago provide perspectives most wouldn’t see even with great seats in the opera house. When baritone Michael Adams introduces himself as the would-be alpha male Sergeant Belcore, for example, his preening gestures perfectly complement the stylized vocal turns.

That added layer of intimacy is a benefit of the online experience, but it has its drawbacks, with shots seeming randomly chosen at times. And you miss the Olympian, bird’s-eye view of the complete stage, which is revealed only in relatively few shots. Adding to the play with conventions and artificiality is a curious use of applause tracks; the absence of audience noises elsewhere, plus the hygge comforts of home viewing, only make it stand out as all the more artificial. In a similar vein, conductor Carlo Montanaro is shown in a few shots waving his baton from the empty pit.

But even with the limitations of newly imposed, at-home conventions, this “Elixir” beams with the joy of singing. The sheer opportunity to be back onstage, even before an empty house, has unleashed from these young artists a palpable energy and desire to make beauty that even the most low-fi speaker system conveys without blemish.