Carbonated love

Donizetti's bantamweight opera The Elixir of Love is all bubbles and froth &emdash; puddle-deep in substance but teeming with an ocean of high spirits and lilting melodies. Well, that's the way it should come across, but the carbonation meter at the Detroit Opera House occasionally goes on the fritz. Michigan Opera Theatre's production is an inconsistent blend: sometimes fizzy, sometimes flat.

By far, the most effervescent character is Dr. Dulcamara (Thomas Hammons), a quack who dupes an Italian village into thinking that his magic elixir (which is actually just ordinary vino) will cure a host of ills. Hammons, with tufts of hair sticking out like cotton candy, resembles Clarabelle the Clown, but he doesn't exaggerate his performance with broad slapstick. His comic timing is deftly calibrated, and his robust voice is hearty.

Dulcamara's entrance, however, with a carousel horse pulling a wagon, is lame. Surely, director Mario Corradi could have come up with something more imaginative. It's hard to erase from memory the heady Metropolitan Opera production with Dulcamara arriving on the scene in a hot-air balloon.

Corradi's staging is often admirable, but introducing the dramatis personae at the beginning of the opera is embarrassingly hokey. So are some of the subtitles: Moldy clichés like "once upon a time ..." and "they lived happily ever after ..." are downright juvenile.

Tenor Vinson Cole, who plays the moonstruck Nemorino, sings with an easy, lustrous grace. His exquisite phrasing is a paragon of bel canto style, particularly in his opening aria, "Quanto e bella." And although he employs a surfeit of vibrato in the famous "Una furtiva lagrima," he sings this shopworn aria with freshness and liquid elegance. Cole may play a 10-watt ditz, but his singing is as bright as an arsenal of klieg lights.

Native Detroiter Janet Williams, who was so perky as Susanna in MOT's The Marriage of Figaro last season, is surprisingly tepid as the coquettish Adina. Williams usually brings a vital spark to her character, but she just doesn't pull off her role convincingly. Vocally and physically, the part suits her to a T, and Williams' voice, rather small but gleaming and well-focused, has all the requisite bells and whistles Donizetti's florid writing demands. But her dramatic sense is too muted. She's at her best when paired with Cole; their duets are balanced, lyrical and supple.

As the pompous soldier Belcore, baritone Richard Bernstein provides a firm sense of character, and except for some strained high notes, sings with warmth and confidence. As Giannetta, Samia Bahu injects dramatic sparkle and glittering top notes into her small but welcome role.

Conductor Steven Mercurio gets a pat on the back for his sprightly tempos and cleanly etched lines, but he gets a rap on the knuckles for his iron-handed accompaniments. Too often, the orchestra plays at full throttle while the singers are buried in its textures. Still, his restraint in accompanying Cole in "Una furtiva lagrima" is laudable.

Suzanne Acton deserves praise for her adroit handling of the chorus, which sings with aplomb and on-the-button intonation. All told, this Elixir has its moments, but it could stand to be more intoxicating. George Bulanda frequently writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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