Culture | Recipe for a love elixir

Opera McGill transforms a mythical tale

The opening of L’elisir d’amore is much like that of Beauty and the Beast: a throng of cheerily sociable – and, as we later learn, highly impressionable – townsfolk sing a rousing, rustic, and somewhat cheesy chorus, while our Belle, the alluring Adina, sits alone with her nose buried in a book. Yet, despite the bright colours and memorable earworms that lent Opera McGill’s production a jubilant Disney aesthetic, the similarities end there. Where Belle is scorned for her brains, Adina is celebrated. An audience of villagers eagerly gathers to listen to the beautiful bibliophile, played by Chelsea Rus, a sparkling and agile soprano whose performance was among the show’s highlights, recount the mythical love story of Tristan and Isolde.

According to an old tale, Tristan seeks counsel from a revered magician, who offers him a powerful love potion as a remedy to Princess Isolde’s persistent rejection. Upon Tristan’s first sip, Isolde’s heart is softened. But it is not the legendary elixir that lends L’elisir d’amore its title. Rather, it’s a bottle of ordinary Bordeaux, peddled by a quack doctor, which nonetheless proves to have magical qualities of its own.

The performance on January 30 was one in an intense, four-show run. Lead roles were double-cast – one set of singers on Thursday and Saturday and another on Friday and Sunday, giving a greater number of talented students their moment in the spotlight. Vocal performance majors at the Schulich School of Music auditioned for the roles in September and have been preparing since. After all, it isn’t easy to memorize two and a half hours’ worth of Italian lyrics.

A nearly full audience of students, faculty, and other Montrealers packed into the Schulich School’s 600-seat Pollack Hall, joined by a virtual audience via CBC Music’s live webcast.

L’elisir d’amore, written in 1832 by Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti, is nothing short of a rom-com: someone falls in love, but get rejected, and goes to great lengths to win their love over; misunderstandings and hilarity ensue. Opera McGill’s energetic cast delivered a performance full of heart and humour. Saturday’s comedic standouts included Megan Miceli as the wily gossip Giannetta; Jesús Vicente Murillo as the impossibly impish, fourth-wall-breaking Doctor Dulcamara; and Bruno Roy as Sergeant Belcore, a role that he approached with all the cynical swagger (not to mention the moustache) of an operatic Groucho Marx. Accompanying Belcore was a phalanx of bumbling soldiers, whose crisply uniformed antics paired a Monty Python sensibility with Napoleonic aplomb.

Jan van der Hooft lent stilted charm to the role of Nemorino, a sentimental character-in-love and, not the brightest crayon in the box, whose hopeless affections for Adina lead him to drink Doctor Dulcamara’s cure-all “elixir.” Van der Hooft’s subdued tenor is perhaps better fit to the dulcet melodies of an older, Baroque opera, rather than the stirring anthems of the 19th century bel canto style to which L’elisir belongs. Nonetheless, his stumbling Nemorino, emboldened by the “potion,” left the audience in agitation while the singers on stage summed up Act I with a chorus that roughly translates to “go home, Nemorino, you’re drunk.”

Stage director François Racine encouraged these over-the-top portrayals. “For this work, I’m inspired by the Commedia dell’arte; that is, simple stock characters written larger than life,” Racine writes in the press release. “I’m banking on the intrigue found within the come-from-away charlatan, who promises everyone happiness and healing purchased with a fake potion. And yet ultimately, true love and integrity will conquer.”

The other stars of the show could be heard but not seen. Members of the McGill Symphony Orchestra, hidden in the pit below the Pollack Hall stage and led by conductor Patrick Hansen, made Donizetti’s celebrated score feel as fresh as a hot new EP. During Nemorino’s famous aria “Una furtiva lagrima,” bassoon soloist Chris Kostyshyn’s remarkable melody rivaled a heartfelt van der Hooft.

Spoiler alert: at the end of the opera, Nemorino and Adina get together. Their victorious embrace was met by cheers from the audience (spurred by an encouraging wave from Doctor Dulcamara) — and that, perhaps, was the most enchanting part of the performance. Not the miraculous elixir, nor the triumph of true love, but the audience, transported and enthralled by a love story and united in laughter throughout an entirely enjoyable evening of humour, magic, and music.