Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Boys Don't Cry

August 13, 2009

Dimitri Pittas and Jennifer Black with cast
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2009

I’ve begun to wonder. Is it possible to do a bad staging of L’Elisir d’Amore? Donizetti and Felice Romani fashioned such a taught comic gem that it seems to induce laughter in the hands of nearly any director and design team that comes into contact with it. Sure it’s not the musical monument any of the Mozart/DaPonte operas are, but L’Elisir is a crowd-pleaser with its share of memorable music. Here in Santa Fe the director duties belong to Stephen Lawless who has updated the action (you guessed it) to a post WWII-era Italy with American occupying forces. Nemorino is a mechanic and Adina is now a sort-of local school teacher. The action takes place in front of a roadside billboard that carries several different banners throughout including both ads and scenery. There’s a red sports car Nemorino is working on that he wheels out and later drives on stage and there is also Belcore’s jeep. (How a motor vehicle on stage always elicits applause like it’s Top Gear or something is beyond me.) Wedged in between this are a number of outright funny gags. Take for instance the chorus' preparation at the sound of Belcore’s approach. They immediately grab small Italian flags to wave until realizing that these are Americans on the way up the hill. The entire chorus runs around to dump the Italian flags only to return with American flags seconds later as the sergeant arrives. There’s also a rather funny segue from the intermission into act two where one of the local women writes Adina’s wedding menu on a blackboard as she carefully mulls over each course before writing it down. It’s when she gets to the third course that the audience begins to note that everything includes chicken, even the dessert.

So, with such appropriate frivolity why was the evening such a drag? Sadly, it comes down to the musical part of this evening of musical theater. Even with a completely competent young American cast, the musical values of Wednesday’s performance were not so great. The chorus was AWOL for most of the evening. They were almost completely inaudible at the end of Act I and with only moderate revival after the break. Unfortunately, the disorganization spilled over into the pit where conductor Corrado Rovaris managed a rather flat and lifeless interpretation of a score that is all about zing.

Thank god for Dimitri Pittas. Santa Fe Opera has been billing him as the big star for this production, and he is. With tenor disappointment an international pastime these days, hearing someone sing this role fluidly with so much ease and command is a wonder. He’s a decent actor as well and a rising star at the Metropolitan Opera in New York where he’s gotten into some higher profile assignments lately. Which is very good for him if he can maintain the quality demonstrated here this evening. The Belcore, Patrick Carfizzi, and Adina, Jennifer Black, are both alumni of the vocal apprenticeship program in Santa Fe and both were strong, assured performers. There were no obvious weak links and everyone looked fresh and excited, which goes a long way. So while not everyone in the show came to the dance in quite the same shape, Santa Fe’s current L’Elisir is by no means a total disaster. It competently sung and has a cute and funny staging. It just needs a little more musical inspiration.


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