by Doug Hill
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Opera has given the world countless moments of transporting bliss across the centuries, and the University of Oklahoma’s upcoming production of Gaetano Donizetti’s sentimental comedy “L’Elisir d’ Amore” is no exception.
Scheduled for Oct. 17-20 at the Reynolds Performing Arts Center, OU’s version of this 180-year-old stalwart will not be a radical re-thinking of the opera.
“We’re stressing the Italianate beauty of the music,” said Jonathan Shames, artistic director and opera conductor. “It’s a pastoral comedy with people stamping grapes, making wine and enjoying life on the stage.”
It’s a celebration of hard work, the mysteries of love and the pleasures of human existence. Shames believes the 21st century could benefit from the ethos.
The story is of peasant Nemorino, who is head over heels in love with the beautiful and affluent Adina. She takes his fervent affection for granted and a love triangle occurs when swashbuckling Sgt. Belcore enters the scene. Nemorino gets the idea that a love potion will make Adina fall for him and one is conveniently provided by itinerant snake oil peddler Dulcamara.
The heart of the opera is three spectacular duets between tenor and soprano. After several byzantine twists and turns of the plot, Nemorino inherits an unexpected fortune. Adina recognizes his true love for her and they embrace. Belcore’s feelings aren’t hurt because as a soldier of fortune he knows the world is full of women. The happy results make Dulcamara appear to be a genius and the conclusion is that all’s right with the world.
OU student Patrick Russell of Brownsville, Texas, will play the part of cocksure Belcore.
“The music isn’t extraordinarily difficult, though it does provide some challenges in the way of coloratura and tessitura,” Russell said. “It has also been difficult attempting to inhabit a somewhat cartoonish character, someone who is completely different than me.”
Graduate student Patricia Westley performs the lead female role.
“I believe Adina’s fickle nature is perfectly illustrated in the music Donizetti wrote for her,” Westley said. “Adina’s melody seamlessly vacillates between feisty and peppery and then transforms into her beautiful luscious lines of unmistakable bel canto.”
The part has been a true learning experience for the Santa Barbara, Calif., native.
“I’ve loved getting this chance to play Adina. Her transformation from a young, flirtatious tease into a mature woman who shows a true capacity for deep love has been such a fascinating discovery for me,” Westley said. “Finding the exact moments in the music where this switch happens has been a wonderful dramatic challenge.”
Shames said the choices of which operas to produce are based almost entirely on student capabilities and what will benefit them most in terms of artistic growth. The many young voices are assessed for optimum levels of maturity and whether they’re right for certain operatic parts. This process may begin as much as 18 months in advance.
The five principle roles have been double-cast, Shames said. The cast includes a chorus of 23 and some silent actors. The large chorus’ task will be to fully express the boisterous, interested and highly opinionated community’s vitality. Their aural observations reflect on Nemorino and Adina fitting into local society. The set will create the illusion of a beautiful Italian courtyard.
“We’ve been developing our opera chorus for several years and we’re just delighted with it,” Shames said, proudly. “It’s now really part of the choral program. It’s a credit course and we’re just thrilled with it.”
Part of his teaching mission is for students to learn and fully understand the relationship of the orchestra to the voice, as well as the theater to the voice. He also stresses that staging is a factor.
“How the music percolates through each individual has to do with preparation and technique,” Shames said. “It has to do with musicianship and hearing at the most basic level. It’s fascinating and why I teach, conduct and study music myself all the time.”
Shames is convinced that the combination of music and drama has been the key to opera’s longevity as a vital world art form.
“It’s riveting and there’s a universality that people identify with,” he said. “Operas are performed for large audiences where individuality is surrendered and they all find a shared experience in the story being told on stage.”
“L’Elisir D’amore” is scheduled for 8 p.m. Oct. 17-19 and 3 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Reynolds Performing Arts Center, 560 Parrington Oval.
Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors, military and OU faculty and staff, and $10 for OU student with ID. Purchase tickets from the OU Fine Arts Box Office by calling 405-325-4101, located in the Catlett Music Center, 500 W Boyd St. Box office hours are 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, and open one hour prior to performance at venue.