The Santa Opera presented its new production of Donizetti’s comic ruby last night (July 15, 2009). Stephen Lawless set the action in an Italian village just at the conclusion of World War II. Why? Who knows. But the show works despite a few contradictions induced by the change in setting.
Sergent Belcore is in the US Army. He and his men arrive in a broken Jeep. He wears an officer’s uniform rather than that of a non-com. His pants and boots are not US Army regulation and if they were only General Patton would have worn them. Also the Italian Nemorino joins the American army. But this is opera and Stephen Lawless has a lot more stage sense than Mary Zimmerman of recent La Sonnambula infamy. He also didn’t have to work with Natalie Dessay. She’s on campus, but is in another show.
Adina is a haughty school teacher. She writes the alphabet on a blackboard early in the first act. Unlike Zimmerman’s blackboard very clever use is made of it. Many in the audience wondered at intermission about the missing letters; the Italian alphabet has only 21 letters. When Adina explains to Nemorino why she’s so hard to get she writes “NATURA” on the blackboard. Nemorino, (opera’s ultimate booby) in a unexpected burst of intelligence erases all but the N and A, separates them with a +, and draws a heart around them.
The love struck Nemorino is an auto mechanic who putters with a small red convertible throughout the opera. Dr Dulcamara, who has a potion for everything from warts to impotence, is dressed like a sharpie out of a Fellini movie. The staging was fast paced and fun; it fully captured the work’s gentle humor.
The star of the evening was the young New York born tenor Dimitri Pittas. He has a lovely limpid lyric tenor which he uses with grace and Italianate style. He’s newly emerged on opera’s main screen. If he can avoid the self destruction that haunts his vocal type he’s destined for a great career. His acting was as good as his singing. He has a fine comic sense and connects with the audience in a way that can’t be taught. He’s got everything needed for success as a tenor; he’s losing his hair, his shape is shifting to that of a squash, and his voice is beautiful. Faust, Edgardo, and Rodolfo, in addition to Nemorino, are the type of roles he should concentrate on.
Quanto è bella was sung with pathos and a long line. Una furtiva lagrima, which is so famous and so great that it can overwhelm the entire opera, was delivered with restraint and subtlety. Of course it got the most applause of the evening. It was almost as good as Carlo Bergonzi’s reading that I heard in Chicago about 30 years ago.
Jennifer Black, recently Lisa in Zimmerman’s goofy Sonnambula, was Adina. She has a fine voice which handled her role with ease. She went a little shrill at the top of her range, but this is a quibble. Her main problem is that she doesn’t have a sound that stays with the listener. She acted her part with verve and skill. All and all a fine job.
Patrick Carfizzi was Belcore. He had the required swagger but his bluster tended to extend to his singing. He bellowed from time to time. Thomas Hammons was a late replacement for John Del Carlo who was originally announced as Dr Dulcamara. He was underpowered for the role. At time he was almost inaudible. he made nothing out of Dulcamara’s great entrance aria “Udite, udite, o rustici”.
Corrado Rovaris conducted in white tie and tails. Santa Fe has been hit with an unusual heat wave that has lasted into the evening. That Maestro Rovaris didn’t succumb to heat stroke garbed as he was indicates great conditioning. His conducting was idiomatic and kept Donizetti’s sparkling score moving along briskly.
In summary, an outstanding presentation of one of opera’s greatest comedies. The evening’s highlight was the emergence of Dimitri Pittas as a potential great tenor. Keep your digits crossed.