When attending professional opera, patrons can and should expect to see a solid production, strong singing, and elevated production values—a well-rounded show that leaves them more satisfied than not. At the professional level, opera is a commercial transaction around an artistic product. But deep down, we're all hoping for something beyond sheer transaction—a glimmer of greatness—a moment to remember.

David Lomeli as Nemorino, a lovestruck mechanic © Carol Rosegg
David Lomeli as Nemorino, a lovestruck mechanic
© Carol Rosegg

New York City Opera’s current production The Elixir of Love offers that transcendent moment, one that everyone in the audience will replay over and over in their imaginations and would gladly pay to experience again. Mexican tenor David Lomeli’s second-act aria “Una furtiva lagrima” is that perfect moment—the lighting, the orchestra, the staging, the singing, especially the singing. Since it’s the signature aria in the show, expectations are precipitously high for that number, yet New York City Opera and Lomeli delivered.

There's much to recommend the production as a complete work, too. In addition to Lomeli’s breakout performance as the lovestruck Nemorino, the set design, the costuming, the performers in the supporting roles, and the overall energy of the production are to be highly commended.

Let's start with the setting. The Elixir of Love is one of only a handful of Donizetti operas commonly performed today because it can be contemporized and set in any place, at any time without detracting from the effectiveness of the opera. Such adaptability is important because of the frequency with which this show is done. Who wants to see an Elixir that looks and sounds the same at every venue? That’s the very definition of ho-hum opera.

In the New York City Opera production, Jonathan Miller’s vision for the show transports the drama from a sleepy Italian town to an American diner in a dustbowl during the 1950s. Think greasers and rolled-up jeans. Nickel cokes in glass bottles. Gas guzzlers with fins, filling up at rounded pumps from one single hose hanging off the side. On this set, the neon red of the Adina’s Diner sign glows against a backdrop of desert terrain and a robin-egg-blue sky. Visually, a striking and engaging concept overall and well executed. Also, an efficient revolving set makes scene changes effortless, even interesting. (The Met, whose revolving sets tend to lumber along—even glaciers recede faster at times—could take a lesson from the expediency of its Lincoln Center neighbor in this regard.)

The costumes are equally clever and adaptable to the retro setting. Adina looks as appetizing as the tasty morsels served in the diner bearing her name in her Marilyn Monroe bombshell get-up—blonde wig, form-fitting waitress uniform, and fetching formal dress in Act II. Dr. Dulcamara appears appropriately oily as a traveling salesman with his flashy sportcoat and slicked back hair.

It’s a frothy opera with a paper-thin storyline, so any conceptual theme that underscores Elixir’s entertainment value while showcasing Donizetti's score is potentially a winning combination, and New York City Opera's interpretation fired on most cylinders for most of the afternoon.

Despite the fact that most of his operas haven’t held up over time (like Verdi's, for instance), Donizetti is one composer who deserves acclaim in this regard: a facility at writing well for every range of voice. Elixir perfectly exemplifies this special talent, and the performers in New York City Opera’s production carry that gift forth, for the most part. Most notably, baritone José Adán Pérez, who is ideally cast in the role. He is a Belcore you loved to hate. Looking spiffy in a dress-pressed American army sergeant’s uniform, Pérez is the complete package—singing, acting, strutting and preening, expertly showcasing the glorious baritone role as if Donizetti wrote it just for him.

Marco Nisticò turns in another stellar performance as Dr. Dulcamara, like one who knows he has a gem of a role and mines it for all it's worth. Again, credit Donizetti for writing an engaging role for a bass that’s as entertaining to hear as it must be to sing--not an easy task considering the limits of the vocal range.

A hearty bravo to all the male principals in this show (and you certainly heard plenty of them from the audience after these gentlemen sang!)

While Ukrainian soprano Stefania Dovhan looks born for the role, acts adorably, and makes a valiant effort with all of Adina’s coloratura runs, especially in Act II, the part is not the best fit for her voice. I know this because I saw her in last season’s Don Giovanni at New York City Opera and didn’t realize I was hearing the same singer until I read her bio at intermission. Inexplicably, her voice is much better suited to Mozart—she was the breakout performer in their Don G.—and I hope to see her in more Mozart roles in the future.

In the performance I saw, the conducting seemed amiss, as though conductor Brad Cohen couldn’t keep everyone together frequently enough. However, like magic, the music somehow congeals for Lomeli’s perfect aria in Act II, which made for a remarkable single scene, but the essential gel coming too little, too late overall. Even in a conceit on the scale of Elixir, the direction and colorful stage movement by A. Scott Parry comes off as trying a bit too hard to be clever and memorable, becoming awkward in spots though the performers did try their best to carry out the staging and movements assigned to them con gusto.

If searching for an accessible opera that delivers high entertainment value and solid production values, then consider New York City Opera’s Elixir to be a fine choice. As a bonus, operagoers will be treated to that transcendent opera moment, too—which just doesn’t come with every Playbill handed out.