After the gross if alluring artificialities of “Samson et Dalila” on the season’s opening night, a simpler kind of beauty returned to the Music Center stage with the Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 1996 production of Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love.” There is little if anything more enchanting in all romantic opera than this winsome, bucolic comedy’s last 15 minutes — the hero’s big aria “Una furtiva lagrima,” repertory chestnut for any three tenors or more, and the answering aria for his sweetie, Adina.
Truth to tell, an attendee’s ears were better served than his eyes in Stephen Lawless’ fidgety staging, afflicted with an obsession with gratuitous stage biz and the use of people-props in constant motion. On designer Johann Engels’ set, which includes a barrier wall of vertical slats that better suggested a prison courtyard than a rustic landscape, doors continually opened and closed to no purpose.
But nobody goes to Donizetti operas for the scenery. As recompense, there was the elegance of Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas’ Nemorino, as winning now as at his company debut in 1996. His singing was sweet, moving and unforced, his stage presence exactly the befuddled sadsack intended in Felice Romani’s libretto (“Nemorino” translates as “little nobody”). As Adina, American soprano Ruth Ann Swenson stole hearts onstage and off, her voice clear and radiant and thankfully lacking the chirp that some singers feel necessary in bel canto comedy.
As the wily charlatan Dulcamara, purveyor of his home-brewed “elixir of love,” British baritone Thomas Allen created a character subtle and straight, but now and then outclassed by the score’s demands for more of a boffo buffo basso. As the brash, philandering Belcore, Rodney Gilfry uncorked his own stock of comedic biz, most of it delightful.
In his company debut, American conductor John Keenan did what conductors of Donizetti operas must do above all: stay out of the singers’ way. This he did with grace and high skill; despite the awkward staging, the genuine charms of Donizetti’s fragile comedy came through, buoyed by musicianship of high and delightful order.