J onathan Miller, the British polymath who long ago put aside medicine and acting for opera directing and giving peevish newspaper interviews, is back in town to stage Donizetti’s rustic comedy L’Elisir d’Amore at the City Opera and, during lulls in rehearsal, receive the press. A virtuoso word juggler, the good doctor is always ready to administer a sharp dose of acerbic wit, and he’s in rare form these days. Aside from spinning variations on his pet themes for any reporter who cares to listen—divas who control the opera world, the appalling lack of appreciation for his own work, not very convincing threats of retirement, etc.—the director has had some harsh words for Anthony Minghella’s take on Madama Butterfly at the Met, “a Japanese fashion show” that Miller found about as theatrically stimulating as “a maple-syrup enema.”
That’s not very collegial, but I’m glad to find someone who hated the Minghella Butterfly even more than I did. And I’ve disliked a lot of Miller shows, too, although not this time. As he often does when he tackles a repertory piece, Miller has relocated the action, and here Donizetti’s early-nineteenth-century Italian peasants are transformed into small-town Americans, circa the late fifties, who hang out at Adina’s Diner on a dusty highway somewhere in the Midwest. It all works quite neatly (I am prepared to forgive Miller for lifting the idea from Peter Sellars, who once famously staged Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte in Despina’s Diner), and there’s not a dull moment. Adina’s social status as a young property owner is retained; her bashful admirer, Nemorino, is still as wholesome as apple pie; and his swaggering rival, Sergeant Belcore, swivels like Elvis during his Army days. Back then, snake-oil salesmen like the traveling quack Dr. Dulcamara still roamed the heartland’s highways, although the fake love elixir he now hawks is no longer cheap Bordeaux but Robitussin.
What’s surprising is not that the switch works so well but how successfully Miller applies his razor-sharp wit while never neglecting to bring out the real affection and tenderness that Donizetti clearly felt for these lovable characters. Perhaps the English supertitles went overboard to capture the flavor of fifties vernacular (“go ape,” “daddy-o,” etc.), and we surely didn’t need so many aural reminders of the noisy plumbing in the diner’s restroom. Most of the inventions, though, are both hilariously on target and often applied with an affecting twist that suggests something deeper. I’m thinking especially of the heart-stopping orchestral introduction to the familiar tenor aria “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” staged here as a brief but poignant mute encounter between Nemorino and Adina as they ponder their mutual attraction and inability as yet to communicate it.
The City Opera has fielded an excellent cast, personable actors as well as stylishly aware singers—and for Donizetti, even in his comic operas, nothing but high bel canto style will do. John Tessier’s Nemorino is particularly distinguished, his bright, open, unblemished tenor just as appealing as his boyishly wide-eyed good nature. It’s best to underplay Adina’s shrewish side and accent her charm, which Anna Skibinsky does successfully by alternating coloratura sparkle with lyrical warmth. Even Belcore gets our sympathy thanks to a slyly understated turn by Paulo Szot, whose flexible baritone sounds very much at ease articulating Italian patter. Best of all is Jan Opalach’s Dulcamara, a freshly conceived and fully savored comic turn by this seasoned bass buffo, while the whole performance unfolds with smooth precision under conductor George Manahan’s musical direction. Even with all that excellence, Miller emerges as the evening’s chief hero with his keenly observed, generous-spirited production. Perhaps under that brittle exterior there beats the heart of an old softy after all.