Capital Opera has come a long way from its shaky inaugural production of La bohème four years ago to its current offering of Gaetano Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore. It now occupies the vacuum left by The Fletcher Opera Theater (né The National Opera Company) as a vehicle to showcase promising young singers. Bohème's original "orchestra" of piano and string quartet has morphed into instrumental support by a best-of-the-Triangle pick-up orchestra. CapOpera was always billed as a grass-roots organization, and many such opera companies now populate the country much like the companies sported by nearly every small-to-medium-sized Italian city during the nineteenth century. All caveats, therefore, apply: success in the provinces can catapult a singer to stardom; a volley of catcalls and assorted vegetables… plus iffy reviews certainly don't help.
L'elisir d'amore, presented in the Jones Auditorium at Meredith College, was one of the best productions we've attended at CapOpera. This comic country-bumpkin Tristan legend knockoff depends heavily on both acting and singing to make up for its indifferent music. So it was with great pleasure that we witnessed the emerging of a real star. Tenor Jason Karn's Nemorino, the lovesick, rural rube whose true love overcomes the resistance of the bitchy, pseudo-intellectual Adina, was simply outstanding. His hangdog looks alone were heart melting, but the voice! Pitch, power, timbre, diction all came together in one package. Adina, sung by soprano Julie Celona-VanGorden was appropriately charming and snitty. She has a lovely coloratura voice, but frequently lost the battle with the orchestra (more on that below). Baritone Brian Watson, as the dashing Sergeant Belcore, who nearly gets Adina to the altar in a single day, had serious range and pitch difficulties and seemed generally hoarse, so much so that we thought he might have been under the weather. Bass-baritone Phil Hanna as Dr. Dulcamara - described in the cast list as a "perambulating" (meaning "peripatetic") physician (aka "snake oil salesman") reminded us both of Frank Morgan, that "man behind the curtain" con artist, the Great Oz. Wonderful comic acting and a Gilbert & Sullivan approach to an ageing voice were perfect for the role. Soprano Ariel Reed sang the role of Giannetta, Adina's friend. Donizetti must have had to score the role for a not-very-spiffy comprimaria, since he gave her so little to sing.
Wayne Wyman, CapOpera's artistic director, about whom we were not terribly enthusiastic last year for his production of I pagliacci, redeemed himself. He was clearly demanding enough to keep the chorus in character 100 per cent of its time on stage. The sight gags for Dulcamara were also well handled.
The chorus was packed with good voices but was a bit ragged and without enough time to perfect its Italian diction. For one of us, this was an issue, since the surtitles were pretty much illegible, projected on the pleated curtain above the stage. We noted this particularly because everyone else’s diction was so good.
Jones Auditorium has come to be the venue of choice for CapOpera, probably for financial reasons, but the absence of a true orchestra pit is problematic. Despite the high quality of the musicians, Music Director Al Sturgis just could not keep them playing pianissimo to overcome the acoustic problems of an orchestra that literally upstaged the singers. For Karn, it didn't matter, but the other singers, whose voices are less powerful, struggled to be heard when accompanied or doubled even by the strings alone.
The set, a couple of multi-level, slightly run-down houses - cracks and stains on the whitewash and all - with the ubiquitous Italian potted geraniums, was simple but very effective. The costumes were also simple, but appropriate for a backwater nineteenth-century Italian village. Poor though he was, Nemorino was at least permitted to tuck his shirttails in.
As we said at the start, CapOpera has come a long way in a short time. But the success of L'elisir d'amore also indicates that until it can attract a more even cast, it would do well to stick to lighter opera fare.