Donizetti’s popular 1832 comic opera “L’elisir d’amore” is set in a small Italian village — but that’s not where it takes place in Jonathan Miller’s new production at New York City Opera. Ponytails, push-up bras, and biker jackets hold sway, with the action transposed to a Route 66 diner in the American Southwest of the late 1950s. Everyone is still singing the original Italian, but the supertitles are peppered with “Dig me” and “Daddy-O” and references to Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly and Elvis. Purists may sniff at the liberties Miller has taken, but it all makes for an engaging, fresh look at this comic chestnut. There are certainly no great insights or revelations on display here, just the crowdpleasing instincts of its director.
Transposition is Miller’s trademark gimmick; it’s no longer a particularly original one, but he often makes it work. His 1950s Little Italy “Rigoletto” and his 1920s British “Mikado,” both for English National Opera, were memorable productions, and his Met “Pelleas et Melisande,” set in and around a country estate in the late 19th century, had an effectively brooding, Bergmanesque quality.
This “L’elisir d’amore” may strain a bit for laughs, especially in some of the more egregiously rewritten supertitles, and it bears little relation to its Italianate score. But Miller’s imagination and his well-chosen cast of singers somehow keep the show fleet, funny and touching.
When Nemorino finishes his famous aria “Una furtiva lagrima” in front of the darkened diner against a prairie sky, thumbs hitched into the pockets of his jeans and cowboy hat on his head, the result is a movingly iconic stage picture evoking “The Misfits,” “Bus Stop” or “Giant.”
Set and costume designer Isabella Bywater’s classic roadside diner/gas station is set on a turntable that provides smooth transitions from interior to exterior scenes, and she beautifully evokes the limitless space of the Southwestern desert around it. In this opera, which takes place in a single day, Pat Collins’ sensitive, nuanced lighting scheme is particularly effective at delineating the passing time.
Although Donizetti gave the chorus plenty to do, his solo characters number just five. Nemorino, a peasant besotted with love for the town beauty Adina, is now an auto mechanic, and John Tessier is a revelation in the role. His characterization is winning in its restraint, and his beautifully produced tenor is firm, sweet and lyrical. (His Italian still needs some work; the consonants lack the proper crispness.)
In this version, Adina is the diner’s proprietress. Unfortunately, Miller has encouraged petite Russian soprano Anna Skibinsky into a rather trampy characterization. She gyrates shoulders and hips with every step, a Mamie Van Doren-ish approach that doesn’t help with a character already short on sympathy. Skibinsky sings the part well, however, particularly the meltingly lyrical scenes with Nemorino in the second act, despite a stridency that creeps into her high notes.
Nemorino’s rival, Sergeant Belcore, is played and sung with appropriate comic swagger by Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot. As the snake-oil salesman Dr. Dulcamara, whose love elixir is nothing more than cheap wine, veteran bass-baritone Jan Opalach is endearingly slippery and bears a strong resemblance to 1930s humorist/character actor Robert Benchley. In the small role of Adina’s friend Giannetta, Erin Morley unfurls a sweet soprano that makes one wish Donizetti had written more for her.
City Opera music director George Manahan marshals his forces with brio, allowing the cast to shine in the gorgeous passages of bel canto.