Review: Donizetti’s Delightful, ‘Must See’ “Elixir of Love” Starring Pene Pati and Slatka Zamecnikova – San Francisco Opera, November 19, 2023

Donizetti’s most famous romantic operatic comedy “L’Elisir d’Amore” The Elixir of Love] returned to the War Memorial Opera House. The bel canto opera has not been performed here in the last decade and a half. (This was the opera’s longest omission from the San Francisco Opera’s performance repertory of the past 75 years).

The opera returned in British director Daniel Slater’s new to San Francisco production, set in a mid-20th century “La Dolce Vita” era resort on Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

Pene Pati’s Nemorino

New Zealand tenor Pene Pati, of Samoan birth and heritage, brought both exuberance and pathos to the character of the lovesmitten Nemorino. From his opening aria Quanto e bella, quanto e cara!, Pati sang stylishly.

The opera’s high point is Nemorino’s second act aria Una furtive lagrima. In Pati’s voice, the aria was a memorable experience. Pati caressed the words and music of each phrase.

[Below: Pene Pati as Nemorino, a waiter at the Hotel Adina; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Much of Pati’s early career has taken place at the San Francisco Opera. Here he has performed with distinction three of the operatic roles that are central to the lyric tenor repertory – Nemorino, Roméo [Review: Pene Pati and Nadine Sierra Brilliant in Gounod’s “Roméo and Juliet” – San Francisco Opera, September 6, 2019].and the Duke of Mantua (to the Rigoletto of his fellow Pacific Islander, Quiinn Kelsey [Review: Quinn Kelsey a World Class Verdi baritone in “Rigoletto” – San Francisco Opera, May 31, 2017]).

Slávka Zámecníková’s Adina

As the object of Nemorino’s desire, Austrian soprano Slávka Zámecníková played Adina with an appropriate blend of disguised empathy for Adina’s forlorn admirer, Nemorino, with a spirited coquettishness (Adina almost taking her flirtation with naval officer Belcore too far).

[Below: Slávka Zámecníková as Adina; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Zámecníková’s attractive voice, beautiful throughout her range, nicely complemented Pati’s in their sparring duets that reveal to the audience that Nemorino really did not need a love potion to confirm Adina’s interest in him. In two successive arias near opera’s end, Zámecníková’s Adina drops all pretense of disinterest in Nemorino courting her. Zámecníková poignantly delivered Adina’s aria Prendi per me sei libero in which she reveals that Adina has bought Nemorino’s enlistment from Belcore. Then, in Zámecníková’s Perche, son sono amato, the rousing coloratura passages that follow, Zámecníková’s Adina reveals she has loved Nemorino all along.

[Below: Adina (Slávka Zámecníková, left) lets Nemorino (Pene Pati, right) know that she loves him; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

David Bizic’s Belcore

The womanizing serviceman, Belcore (in Slater’s production, moving from a non-commissioned rank in the Army to an officer position in the Navy), was handily performed by Serbian-born French baritone David Bizic.

[Below: Belcore (David Bizic, front row, far right) joins his fellow naval officers in their pursuit of women (photographs of whom they are sharing); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Bizic’s sturdy baritone was enlisted for Belcore’s cavatina Come Paride vezzoso. Bizic showed his comic timing in the funny scene where Belcore enlists the gullible Nemorino so that the latter can obtain a cash bonus of venti scudi to purchase the love elixir.

It has been eleven years since I last saw David Bizic, when he performed the role of Leporello opposite the Don Giovanni of Ildebrando d’Arcangelo [Review: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Roguish Libertine, James Conlon’s Impressive Conducting, in Insightful “Don Giovanni” – Los Angeles Opera, September 22, 2012].

[Below: Belcore (David Bizic, right) enjoys some banter with Adina (Slávka Zámecníková, left) ]

Renato GIrolami’s Dulcamara

Italian baritone Renato Girolami performed the opera’s buffo role, Doctor Dulcamara. Arriving at the resort on a hot air ballooon, the character sold his snake oil to the lively patter of Udite, udite o rustici. In Slater’s production GIrolami’s Dulcamara had an assistant, The Mate, performed by Randy Lee.

[Below: Dulcamara (Renato Girolami, left) reveals to Nemorino (Pene Pati, right) that he just happens to have a love elixir for sale at a price exactly equal to all the money in Nemorino’s possession.]

Later, Girolami joined Zámecníková in the suavely-performed barcarolle Io son ricco e tu sei bella at the ceremonies for the would-be wedding between Adina and Belcore.

[Below: Adina (Slávka Zámecníková, left) performs a duet with Dulcamara (Renato GIrolami, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Arianna Rodriguez Giannetta and other cast members

Four principal singers performs the roles of Adina, Nemorino, Belcore and Dulcamara. The opera’s only comprimario role is that of Adina’s friend and companion, Giannetta, played vivaciously by Arianna Rodriguez. Director Slater stated his intention that the role of Giannetta be an active participant in the telling of the opera’s story, and Rodriguez’ performance obviously met the mark he set.

A comprimario in a Donizetti opera can have beautiful music to sing (such a Alisa in the composer’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”, who is one of the six singers who comprise the opera’s famous Sextet.)

Like Alisa, Rodriguez’ Giannetta has a major role in an important ensemble, the quartet (with Zamecnikova’s Adina, Pati’s Nemorino and Bizic’s Beclore) that closes the first Act. That quartet’s middle larghetto section, beginning with Nemorino’s plaintive phrase Adina, credemi is one of Donizetti’s most inspired and endearing melodies. It was beautifully performed by the foursome.

[Below: Arianna Rodriguez as Giannetta; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Maestro Ramon Tebar and the San Francisco Opera Orchestsra and Chorus

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra masterfully performed Donizetti’s fun-filled music, under the competent baton of Spanish Maestro Ramon Tebar. The elegantly-costumed San Francisco Chorus performed with excellence, under Chorus Master John Keene.

[Below: Maestro Ramon Tebar; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

This was my second opportunity to be at performance conducted by Maestro Tebar. During a period in which he served as Artistic Director of the Florida Grand Opera, he conducted a superb performance of another bel canto masterpiece [Review: “Sonnambula” Reawakened: Rachele Gilmore’s, Michele Angelini’s Artistry, Vocal Fireworks Enliven Bellini’s Masterpiece – Florida Grand Opera, February 9, 2013]. For “Sonnambula”, his colleagues included an eminent director, the late Italian soprano Renata Scotto, and San Francisco Opera’s current (then Florida Grand Opera’s) chorus master, John Keene.

Director Daniel Slater

This is the second time I have reported on Daniel Slater’s production of this opera, following a performance seven years ago in Houston [Review: Engaging “Elixir of Love” at Houston Grand Opera, October 29, 2016]

Slater is an admirer of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir”, and believes in its potential to connect with modern day audiences. His shifting the opera’s focus from a supposedly unsophisticated rural audience to a mid-20th century coastal resort demonstrated the story’s timelessness.

Below: Director Daniel Slater; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.

Previous Slater productions I have reviewed included two “Lohengrin” performances in San Francisco [Review: Jovanovich is a Joy in Luisotti’s Luminous “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2012 and A Second Look Review: The “Lohengrin” Experience at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, October 28, 2012].

 At the Santa Fe Opera I was present to report on the company’s first revival of his “Wozzeck” [Review: “Wozzeck” for the Connoisseur: Richard Paul Fink Stars in Impressive Santa Fe Opera Revival – August 3, 2011] and a new production of “Salome” [Review: Penda, McKinny, Brubaker, Jagde Impress in Daniel Slater’s Psychiatrically Searing “Salome” – Santa Fe Opera, July 31, 2015]

The production’s Associate Director and Choreographer was British director Tim Claydon.

Designer Robert Innes Hopkins and Other Crew Members

Director Slater has been a frequent collaborator with British scenic designer Robert Innes Hopkins, including two Slater productions previously seen at San Francisco Opera, the “Lohengrin” referenced above and Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” in 2005.

More recently, he has collaborated with Texas director Shawna Lucey in new San Francisco Opera productions of Puccini’s “Tosca” [Review: An Appealing New “Tosca” for San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2018] and Verdi’s “La Traviata” [Review: “La Traviata” Delightful New Production, Well-Received Debuts by Yende, Tetelman and Piazzola – San Francisco Opera, November 22, 2022], as well as a recent revival of Santa Fe Opera’s 2001 Edward Hastings production of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Delightful “Italian Girl in Algiers” – July 25, 2018].

[Below: Nemorino (Pene Pati, right) and Adina (Slávka Zámecníková, second from right) listen to the farewell of Dulcamara (Renato Girolami, center front, with arms outstretched) who is about to leave in the hot air balloon in which he arrived with The Mate (Randy Lee, stepping into balloon’s gondola’ edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

California director Dave Maier choreographed the fights.

Recommendation

I have long been an unabashed admirer of Donizetti’s operas and, especially, of “L’Elisir d’Amore”. [See my article 21st Century Love for Donizetti’s “Elixir”that was published in the program of another opera company.]

I recommend the San Francisco Opera revival of Daniel Slater’s intelligent production, for its first rate cast, led by the Nemorino of Pene Pati, and for Robert Innes Hopkins attractive sets and costumes.

This recommendation is made for both the veteran opera goer and the person new to opera.