Houston Grand Opera's Elixir of Love is a Marvelous Riot

High notes meet belly laughs in this farcical production.

By Sydney Boyd October 25, 2016

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Gaetano Donizetti’s 1832 opera The Elixir of Love is a trifle. A featherbrained comedy that Donizetti allegedly wrote in two weeks, the opera requires singers to be technically amazing while pattering through a silly plot—an amalgamation that Houston Grand Opera expertly masters.

Forget about love—the only magic potion in this story is money. Imagine a version of How to Marry a Millionaire where the prized bachelor is a drunk fool who doesn’t know he’s rich, and the lucky bride is his boss with a keen eye for advancement and a penchant for the Tristan and Isolde myth. In a nutshell: boy loves girl, boy gets major inheritance and girl decides she loves boy after all.

That girl is Adina, sung by the exemplary HGO studio alumna and soprano Nicole Heaston. On stage, she radiates even before she opens her mouth—no wonder everyone falls in love with her. The plot may be light, but Donizetti’s bel canto arias are technically no joke. Heaston made every arpeggio, range leap and coloratura flourish sound effortless. Intonation: perfect. Bel canto style: quintessential. Her voice is mint.

American tenor Dimitri Pittas, in the role of her die-hard lover Nemorino, paled in comparison. His opening aria lagged behind in tempo and sounded tight, showing the effort behind the work. As an actor, he played up the comedic side of his character, and by the second act, his voice had warmed and settled in. But by the time the most famous aria in the opera rolled around, Nemorino’s “Romanza,” his voice constricted again and fell into intonation trouble. 

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While intonation, timbre and tempo were no problem for bass-baritone Michael Sumuel (as Belcore, Adina’s other suitor), the bel canto style proved his downfall. His voice embodies a resounding amber glow, charming to a fault, but the bubbling skips up and down the scale and those insane note figures that endlessly turn on themselves emerged in an untidy muddle—it’s a great instrument that just didn’t conform to the technical demands here. 

In HGO’s production, Adina’s traditional farm becomes Hotel Adina, a cozy Italian café and bar at which Nemorino is a waiter. The set, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, forms a cramped trapezoid shape with a raked checkered plaza, a ramp walkway and a slanted hotel dominating stage left. The color palette relieves this claustrophobia with a foundation of pastels and pops of primary colors: the azure blue sky, the striped red hot air balloon that the wiley Dr. Dulcamara arrives in. Alternatively, Adina wears a sateen purplish-pink pantsuit; Nemorino adorns a run-of-the-mill white shirt, black tie and green apron.

On the conductor’s stand, Jane Glover did not disappoint in her HGO debut. Glover capitalized on the score’s remarkable frivolity, floating through phrases before cutting to the punch line (like that Tristan chord in a piano interlude—a joke for all us Wagner nerds). She directs with a balance of clean quips and passion. At one point from my seat, it looked like down in the pit she was jumping to whip up a fast passage into an exhilarating froth. 

With Elixir, HGO shows that not every opera has to achieve Wagnerian levels of somberness to be technically impressive. With the dexterous Glover in the pit and Heaston on the stage, I could relish the inanity of this plot night after night.

Thru Nov 4. From $15. Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-228-6737.

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