Review: Family Matinee “Elixir of Love”at San Francisco Opera, November 8, 2008

San Francisco Opera, as part of its efforts to increase interest in live operatic performance among younger audiences, has developed the “family matinee”, which takes place at the opera house, utilizing the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus and the production sets from one of the main season operas.

This year’s family matinee is Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love”, an English translation of “L’Elisir d’Amore”, utilizing four current or former San Francisco Opera Adler fellows, in place of the “international” cast led by Ramon Vargas and Inva Mula.

[Below:  Allen Moyer’s unit set for “The Elixir of Love” and “L’Elisir d’Amore”; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The opera company has a long tradition of “student matinees” aimed at school-age kids, who might be bussed to the opera company as part of a school culture appreciation project, but the family matinees have a rather different focus. They are deliberately designed for parents, who themselves may never have attended a live performance of an opera, to enjoy the experience of introducing the art form to their children.

It was a great pleasure to see the audience, filled with young children, many of them dressed in finery. Some of the kids seemed delighted, before the auditorium began to fill, with the accessibility of the War Memorial Opera House’s wide aisles to some discreet running and playing. But during the performances the entire audience was the model of decorum – quiet, respectful of the artists, and engaged in the show.

And what a show. The Donizetti comedy is one of the six great comedies by Italian composers of the first half of the 19th century that have maintained a place in the operatic repertory. Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” is the only one of the six to have more performances that Donizetti’s “Elixir”. (The others are Rossini’s “Cenerentola” and “L’Italiana in Algeri” and Donizetti’s “Fille du Regiment” and “Don Pasquale”.)

But of the six, only “Fille” and “Elixir” can really be described as romantic comedies, rather than Rossinian comic book farces, nor is there the conspiracy against the fortune of a man of means that in this century could be described as elder abuse that one finds in “Don Pasquale”.

Nor are any of the other five populated by characters who are as human and accessible as the lovestruck Nemorino, or his adored Adina, or the two blustery comic characters, the vain Sergeant Belcore and the clever charlatan, Doctor Dulcamara.

(Since Donizetti’s “Fille” is a certain bet for an upcoming San Francisco Opera season, it would seem most appropriate, and, I would guess, rather likely, for the company to schedule family matinees of an English language “Daughter of the Regiment”.)

The stage director, Jose Maria Condemi, who had earlier directed the 2004-5 mounting of John Cox’ production of “Cosi fan Tutte”, is one of the former “non-singing” Adler Fellows, who had honed his directing skills with several assistant director assignments.

Two current Adler Fellows took the main roles. Oklahoma tenor Alek Shrader, earlier this season had a promising San Francisco Opera debut as Arbace in Mozart’s “Idomeneo”. Korean soprano Ji Young Yang was his heartthrob, Adina.

Shrader, in addition to the two family matinee performances as Nemorino, is covering Vargas in that role also. In the past the “student matinees” often would simply be comprised of the “covers” – i.e., second cast performances identical (and in the same language as sung by the first cast.)

But Shrader is required to sing “Elixir” in English and to be prepared to sing the role in Italian if he had to step into Vargas’ shoes. In addition, the stage directions for the English language family matinees and the regular performances differ in detail, so he must be familiar with both ways of doing things.

Yang, who also is playing the tsarevna Xenia in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”, which is in repertory with “L’Elisir” and “Elixir”, sings Adina in English in the two matinees, and covers Mula for the Italian Adina. But she also plays the seconda donna role, Giannetta, in all of the regular “L’Elisir” performances.

With rehearsals, it means that Yang has clocked enough performances in the past month to be sure of ranking near the top of any list of the most number of San Francisco Opera performances by a principal singer in a 20 or a 30 day period.

[Below: Ji Young Yang (standing) as Giannetta in the Italian language performances of “L’Elisir d’Amore”; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The principal buffo role, Doctor Dulcamara, was played by Dale Travis, who is now one of the better known baritones in the comic roles, appearing in both major and regional opera companies.  He proved adept at Dulcamara’s hilarious patter song, in which he makes extravagant claims for the medicinal effects of his hokum tonic.

(Today, we could imagine a contemporary patter song about all the side effects of such a medicine, parodizing the lists of possible negative outcomes that Big Pharma ads on TV are required to include.)

Shrader and Yang both have leggiero voices at this stage of their careers, that were sometimes insufficient to carry Donizetti’s melodious vocal lines across the open orchestra pit into the outsized War Memorial Opera House auditorium, but they made an appealing couple and both likely will include Nemorino and Adina in their respective performance repertories.

One member of the cast, however, had the vocal power to conquer the large house – Eugene Brancoveanu, the Belcore.  Brancoveanu has been impressive in all of the roles in which I have seen him at San Francisco Opera, whether in a starring assignment, such as Frank in Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” or in comprimario roles such as Marullo in Verdi’s “Rigoletto”.

 (Even the most devoted fans of live opera performance would rarely remember a Marullo, but Brancoveanu instantly became the center of attention, outshining the unfortunate Duke of Mantua in the company’s 2006 production.)

[Below: Eugene Brancoveanu, here in Portman’s “The Little Prince”, edited image, based on photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

My report on the main cast of “L’Elisir” will follow – a performance which equalled the greatest of casts in an opera for which San Francisco Opera has been legendarily memorable through the decades. Yet, even though my review of Giorgio Caoduro’s Belcore will be appropriately ecstatic, it is my belief that Brancoveanu could take his place in the main cast here, or in any “L’Elisir” cast throughout the world and hold his own.

The San Francisco Opera, with both Caoduro and Brancoveanu in house, has two Belcores of international caliber, although only the former has had the recognition to date.

The character Belcore thinks of himself as the most elegant example of masculinity alive. Brancoveanu’s performance showed the poise and virility that makes us believe that Belcore will indeed have his way with the ladies, even though we are pleased that Adina sees through him.

Brancoveanu’s athleticism, noted in the “Fledermaus” was in evidence again as he did peerless straight-arm pushups while convincing Nemorino to enlist. (This was not part of Caoduro’s performance in the main cast.)

The English translation of the opera by Donald Pippin was revised and abridged by Director of Music Administration Kip Cranna. The performance was the occasion of the San Francisco Opera debut of the conductor, Giuseppe Finzi, who will also conduct the two final performances of Puccini’s “La Boheme” after its first conductor (and music director designate), Nicola Luisetti, departs.

With Finzi and Bruno Campanella sharing responsibilities for the Donizetti and Luisetti and Finzi for the Puccini, it means the remainder of the Fall 2008 season will under the custodianship of conductors from Italy.

For previous reviews of performances by Eugene Brancoveanu cited, see:“Die Fledermaus” in S. F. – September 16, 2006 and,

Gavanelli Dominates Strongly Cast S.F. “Rigoletto” – October 15, 2006