Finally, someone got it right. For the past year and a half, I've seen operatic and balletic love stories featuring mature performers in roles that suggest, if not emphasize, relative youth: The Giselles and the Juliets, for instance, or the hot and lusty Carmen's Don Jose, played in the L.A. Opera production by a rather dumpy middle-aged tenor who sang well but had about as much chemistry with his costar as did the 89-year-old gentleman snoring next to me. Of course it makes sense in opera and ballet that the stars are older, but on stage, there should be some sparks, no? (By the way, the original production of Carmen, overseen by Bizet himself, featured a 31-year-old Don Jose.)
In my simplistic mind, the roles of Juliet and Giselle should always be given to either young stars or as a way to introduce the best dancers or singers in the corps, as in theatre and film. Meryl Streep is, after all, playing Julia these days, not Juliet! So it was with great relief and pleasure to see L.A. Opera's new production, The Elixir of Love (L'Elisir d'Amore), featuring two bright new, young performers, the tenor Giuseppe Filianoti and the soprano Nino Machaidze.
Gaetano Donazetti's bel canto comic opera is a trifle, but a lovely little thing it is, especially in this age of the ponderous and the overwrought. Nemorino (Filianoti) is just a local peasant smitten with the lovely Adina (Machaidze), who is indifferent, especially with all the attention she gets from the self-loving Sargeant Belcore (an amusing Nathan Gunn). Then along comes a traveling huckster, Dr. Dulcamara (Giorgio Caoduro, in a nice turn subbing for the injured Ruggero Raimondi), who sells love potion number whatever. You know the story: After much confusion, missed opportunities, amusement and bemusement, temporary sadness and lots of singing villagers, the guy gets his girl. And we all go home happy.
In the case of this production, under the direction of Stephen Lawless and the conducting of James Conlon, we really do go home happy – because of Lawless's graceful staging, Johan Engels' terrific set (which lent itself to Joan Sullivan-Genthe's inspired lighting –one nighttime scene was spookily real), and mainly the performances of Filianoti and Machaidze. Both are charming actors with real presence. Filianoti combines physical stature (strength, not girth) with a fresh face, a light touch and a powerfully gentle voice; his “Una furtive lagrima” in the second act was pure and beautiful. The words that come to mind: staying power.
But Machaidze is a revelation. Making her North American debut here (what luck befalls us!), she is Georgian via Milan, where she graduated from the Accademia del Teatro alla Scala. Her “Prendi, per me sei libero” played like a right to the body following Filanoti's left jab: it landed in the solar plexus and sucked the breath out. Lovely, lovely, lovely. And her exuberant curtain calls, responding to the cheers with a girlish glee, didn't hurt. Filianoti seemed a tad taken aback, and who can blame him — a star is born, eh?
Luck, apparently, had little to do with Machaidze's appearance. L.A. Opera spokesman Gary Murphy tells the Weekly that the company's casting folks learned of Machaidze from “the sensational reports of her performance in Romeo et Juliette in Salzburg opposite Rolando Villazon in 2008.” (See first paragraph!) A “working session” was set up with Conlon in Italy, after which Machaidze was immediately asked to make her US debut here in Elixir. Apparently, Conlon was smitten. Aren't we all.