Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Ice Cream Man Cometh

November 02, 2008

Ramón Vargas and Inva Mula
Photo: Terence McCarthy/SFO 2008

What’s not to love about L’Elisir d’Amore? Donizetti’s perennial favorite is so earnest, so warmhearted, and so user friendly it seems nearly impervious to virtually all insults. Despite the slings and arrows of outrageous productions, variable vocal talents, and any number of orchestral insults, it is more often than not successful even if it is rarely great. And so it is with the current San Francisco revival of the work. It’s a cute if not chic or groundbreaking production. It’s an updated setting, here a Napa valley harvest festival immediately prior to the outbreak of WWI, which probably is a notch too close to The Music Man for its own good. All the action takes place around a single giant gazebo set, and it’s not unpleasant to look at if rather monotonous after awhile. The effect is more colorful than charming or funny. There were some oddities, however, including the entire cast gathering around a newspaper in the closing tableaux to read news of WWI just breaking out. What this mordant undertone serves in the larger interest of the opera is beyond me and seems to cheapen the whole performance in a "dream sequence" sort of way. L'Elisir could stand some fresh insight as could any opera written this long ago, but this genteel whisper of an approach is pointless.

Perhaps the biggest drag on the evening is a ponderously slow and lifeless performance from the orchestra under Bruno Campanella. As the orchestra receded into a quiet, inert mode, there was little support for either the chorus or the principals. Luckily, there were a couple of world-class vocal performances to counteract this weakness. Foremost is Ramón Vargas, whose Nemorino, a ne'er-do-well ice cream vendor in this staging, is the centerpiece of the whole exercise. This role is an ideal fit for him, and Vargas makes good use of his comic timing and polished acting skills. Opposite him was the legendary Alessandro Corbelli whose Dulcamara seemed effortless and very funny. Inva Mula sang Adina with ease, clarity and a beautiful tone. She tended toward a youthful innocence over a more comic savvy that could have really sold the role, but it’s a minor quibble. Of course, since the company is also offering the opera in a bastardized "family" version, this may be the intent. But maybe that's OK. I suppose L'Elisir is as good an entry point for opera for kids as any, and the production does have a Disney like atmosphere.


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