If it were any lighter, “The Elixir of Love” would probably float merrily right off the stage. But maybe this is exactly what opera fans need right now: buoyant comic relief and joyous singing in a time when music lovers have long been oppressed by virus variants and restrictions. At McCaw Hall on Saturday night, it seemed like a miracle to see and hear unmasked performers singing and cavorting and enacting all sorts of beautiful silliness in the name of love.
Christina Scheppelmann, Seattle Opera’s general director, prefaced the show with a brief appearance, welcoming the audience to the company’s 59th season. It wasn’t a full house; communications manager Joshua Gailey reports that the Opera is running at “about two-thirds of our pre-COVID subscriber levels.” Saturday night’s audience, however, had all the robust enthusiasm of operagoers too long denied the thrill of live performance.
The new “Elixir” might seem particularly sweet to opera audiences who heard and saw Seattle Opera’s 2020 COVID-era digital production of the same opera: an edited film streamed on the company’s online platform with a different cast, no chorus and a pair of pianos replacing the orchestra (it was rebroadcast Feb. 12-14, 2021).
While the company still “strongly encourages” audience members to wear masks, several operagoers attending Saturday’s opening performance did not. In answer to a preperformance query, Gailey explained that “enforcement (of mask protocol) is nearly impossible in a dark theater during a performance, without interrupting the performance itself.” The company does not require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test from audience members. (A few members of the ”Elixir” supporting cast wore masks onstage, though none of the principals did.)
Being back in McCaw Hall, hearing and seeing a sparkling and witty production with some terrific performers, was an experience to savor. Conductor Giampaolo Bisanti, in his U.S. opera debut, gave a lively and detailed account of Donizetti’s effervescent score, coordinating the busy chorus and the very active principals with apparent ease. Nothing sounded forced or hurried, but the performance never lost momentum.
Stage director Stephen Lawless has used his concept in previous “Elixir” productions elsewhere, and it’s a highly entertaining one. The period setting is the 1940s: The heroine, Adina (Salome Jicia), is now a schoolteacher, not a farm owner; Nemorino (Andres Acosta), who is in love with her, is an auto mechanic, not a peasant. Nemorino, who has a heart of gold but a brain of feathers, spends his last coin on a “magic elixir” from the huckster Dr. Dulcamara (the utterly hilarious Luca Pisaroni), hoping to win his beloved Adina.
The three principals, all in their Seattle Opera debuts, were vocally and dramatically superb. Acosta and Jicia, both high-energy and believable actors, were well matched in terms of vocal brilliance and agility. Pisaroni’s Dulcamara was a comic triumph — artful, clever and convincing — and Rodion Pogossov was an excellent Belcore.
It’s a world of sudden proposals and instant weddings, affections transferred in a moment and frenetic activity among the principals and the very lively chorus (well trained by chorusmaster Michaella Calzaretta).
At times, the show is almost stolen by the vehicles onstage — four-wheeled and two-wheeled — and it’s a merry mob scene with villagers, students and soldiers in action. Bring it on! The Opera is back, and experiencing the live show is the best elixir of all.