Though most of Gaetano Donizetti’s operas are not well known, Donizetti wrote dozens of them – many of the silly variety. L’Elisir d’Amore is one frothy work that not only survived, but continues to be performed around the world – frequently. L’Elisir d’Amore has a formulaic storyline: it’s war time (pick a war, any war). A lonely boy falls for a very pretty girl. The pretty girl plays hard to get. The boy drinks a love potion. Circumstances and a soldier in a snappy uniform keep boy and girl apart until the boy inherits a fortune. The now wealthy couple is happily united at the end of the show.

Dulcamara and Nemorino © The Academy of Vocal Arts | photo by Don Valentino
Dulcamara and Nemorino
© The Academy of Vocal Arts | photo by Don Valentino

One of the blessings about a stock storyline is that it can be recast in almost any place and time. In this version of L’Elisir by the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) in Philadelphia, director Nic Muni has set the show in a municipal library in Italy at the end of World War II. Muni’s vision for the show led to some interesting scenes and devices: turning the major characters into library employees, bits of business that can only come alive in a library, and entertaining old time movie clips. However, when all was said and done, Muni’s L’Elisir was more of an artistic exploration than a defining interpretation.

Despite all its period bits and flourishes which bordered on distracting at times, the production did honor the music as it was written and realized one other element vital in any production of L’Elisir: it didn’t interfere with this show’s propensity to make a star out its leading tenor, the character Nemorino.

In Nemorino, Donizetti wrote a brilliant role with abundant vocal calisthenics to wow listeners in the first act. Donizetti then rewards Nemorino with a gorgeous romanza, one of opera’s most famous arias “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” in the second act – a potential show-stopper with a few caveats: Nemorino must have won over the audience by Act II and deliver the romanza as if he was born to sing it.

The (AVA) found an unforgettable Nemorino in Mexican tenor and first-year resident artist Diego Silva, whom the audience falls for faster than Nemorino tumbles for the indifferent Adina. Silva endears himself as the shy, lovestruck librarian (in this version) and turns in an utterly remarkable performance.

While the production values and other performances were solid – a hallmark of all AVA shows – Silva’s portrayal was sheer magic from the moment he stepped on stage. Beginning with his Act I cavatina Quanto è bella, quanto è cara Silva’s lyric tenor had a shiny spinto quality as bright and clear as a bell that also reminded me of several contemporary opera superstar tenors. Think Juan Diego Flórez, and particularly, Vittorio Grigolo.

And who doesn’t attend the opera waiting for such breakout moments? We all do, because it is mesmerizing when it happens. So please indulge this reviewer for waxing on about a single performer when other artists and aspects likewise deserve mention. Silva’s “Una Furtiva Lagrima” was both adorable and beautiful, and reverentially adored and appreciated – the resulting bravos were in abundance.

Nemorino's love interest, the fickle Adina, is a difficult character to embrace as written, at least for the audience. Initially, she spurns Nemorino’s affection, but desires him once she thinks he has lost interest. Maybe in Donizetti’s time such inconstancy in women was alluring, but by today’s standards, it makes her seem somewhat shallow. Adina is somewhat of a thankless role: all the vocal challenges bel canto requires but no payoff aria like Nemorino.

Despite the limitations of the character, Canadian soprano Chloe Moore looked the part of the lovely librarian in her long red wig and a form-fitting suit, reminding me of that World War II pinup and temptress Rita Hayworth. Moore had to sing some incredibly challenging passages and did so capably. Particularly effective was her first act aria “Della crudele Isotta.”

All the roles were well sung. Both Dulcamara’s – bass Scott Conner in Act I and bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana in Act II – had pitch-perfect vocals and spot-on characterizations, lighting up the stage as the charlatan scientist/snake oil salesman. The scene featuring Conner’s Act I duet with Silva was highly entertaining.

Baritone Christian Bowers turned in strong vocals as Belcore, but I wanted more swagger and willingness to play the buffone. The women’s quintet in Act II featuring soprano Chrystal E. Williams and other resident artists was a standout number: technically perfect.

The Centennial Hall at the Haverford School is an attractive venue but not specifically designed for opera performance. On occasion, the AVA Opera Orchestra led by conductor Christofer Macatsoris has overwhelmed the singers. For this performance, owing either to Donizetti’s oom-pah-pah orchestration or some welcome conductorial restraint, the balance between orchestra and singers was just about perfect, allowing the audience to enjoy all the beautiful voices AVA typically assembles and the myriad notes Donizetti packs into his vocal scores.

In order to showcase all the resident artists, the AVA always serves up several casts for each show. I can’t speak for all the other performances, but this cast's showing was fine indeed and augurs many wonderful performances from first-year tenor Diego Silva.