San Francisco Opera ended their fine 2023 Fall Season on a high (and fabulous) note with their lively rendition of Gaetano Donizetti’s evergreen L’elisir d’amore set in ’50s Italian Riviera – evoking Federico Fellini‘s La Dolce Vita – and featuring a handsome cast and another spellbinding American debut!

Elisir – with a libretto by Felice Romani after Eugène Scribe‘s libretto for Daniel Auber‘s 1831 Le philtre – is one of Donizetti’s most enduring operas and has been a staple in opera world since its Milan premiere in 1832, just a year after its inspiration source. It is easy to see why; the opera is chock-full with melodic invention and marked by dramatic élan that delights the audience. The popularity of Nemorino’s aria “Una furtiva lagrima” from Act II in recitals and concert halls doesn’t hurt either.

This production was entrusted to director Daniel Slater and associate director/choreographer Tim Claydon, using sets and costumes designed by Robert Innes Hopkins. It was originally created by Opera North (premiered there in 2000) and a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago (seen there two years ago and reviewed here).

In this staging, Adina was now a proprietor of the aptly-named Hotel Adina and Nemorino was a waiter there (apparently, workplace harassment wasn’t an issue in that hotel!). Hopkins’s stage was essentially the hotel terrace, where the opera chorus came and went as the guests and staff of Hotel Adina. In another homage to another movie, this time 1939 The Wizard of Oz, Dulcamara arrived and left in a hot air balloon in similar manner as The Wizard … highlighting the analogy that both men were nothing more than conmen!

Seen in that context, Slater and Claydon’s idea worked wonderfully as they were pretty much faithful to the libretto. Furthermore, they infused an extraordinary number of details into the production, particularly in the movements of the large chorus on stage. There was a sense of purposes for each scene, and it was very well choreographed. The production retained a large number of physical hijinks required for comic operas without going overboard, and the cast and especially the chorus members performed them with aplomb and visible enjoyment. They even brought three Vespas on stage and replaced the offstage drumroll for Belcore’s arrival with prerecorded sound of racing Vespas! Simon Mills masterfully illuminated the stage to make the audience felt like they were transported to a café in Cinque Terre. The end result was truly, to quote Henson Keys’s beautiful summary in his review, “an exuberant, uplifting, and joyous Elisir” that provided a perfect escape to a city laden with recent layoffs and job cuts coming into Holiday season.

This run of Elisir at San Francisco Opera began on November 19th and was seen here in the middle of the run on November 29th. The November 29th performance was particularly noteworthy as it was the night of tenor Jonah Hoskins’s house debut to sing the role of Nemorino instead of Pene Pati. (Pati himself was interestingly in the audience that night.) Hoskins, who made the role debut in April this year in another one-night-only performance at the Metropolitan Opera, also set the records as the only member of Met Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program in recent history to sing the principal role at the Met stage and he’s scheduled to assume the role in Santa Fe next summer.

That night, Hoskins, while highly musical and of the right temperament for Nemorino, began the show with a sense of tentativeness (probably caused by nerves) and tended to get drowned out by the chorus and the orchestra. Luckily, he was much improved for Act II, culminating in an expressive “Una furtiva lagrima” that brought the house down. His bright sound was pleasing to ears and his personification as lovesick puppy was spot on; it would be interesting to listen to him in the future as he gains more confidence into the role!

San Francisco Opera seemed to have a knack of introducing new singers this season. Similar to Judit Kutasi’s extraordinary debut in recent Lohengrin, Slovakian soprano Slávka Zámecníková made an absolutely mesmerizing US and role debuts as the precocious Adina who receives a valuable lesson in love. Dressed in Hopkins’ gloriously colorful attires, Zámecníková looked like a million bucks, as if she was an Italian socialite. Vocally, she was even better; her bright gleaming voice sounded round, lovely and expressive, and she effortlessly negotiated the many coloratura passages like a well-seasoned veteran. She imbued the role with a sense of confidence and tenderness, and she established good rapport with everyone on stage. Hopefully, she will come back to War Memorial stage as either Norina or Susanna, both of which she has performed in Vienna!

Serbian baritone David Bižic completed the love triangle as the high-spirited Belcore, making a house debut. Slater intended Belcore in this production to be “someone suave, sophisticated, and confident … a genuine contender for Adina’s hand” and Bižic characterized his role with a degree of playfulness; it was refreshing to see a Belcore that wasn’t extremely mean to Nemorino for once! There was some gruffness in his voice that wasn’t entirely unsuitable for the role and like everyone else on stage he had fun playing the boastful persona.

Hoskins wasn’t the only substitution on that night’s performance; the originally scheduled Dulcamara, Renato Girolami, was unfortunately indisposed and, in a fascinating turn of event, bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi was flown in from New York a day prior to take up the mantle. A veteran of the role, Carfizzi brought elegance and wit to his Dulcamara, belying the fact that he was learning the part in less than 24 hours (I couldn’t find any information that he did this production before) and making his character gravitate closely towards, yes, The Great Wizard of Oz! Current Adler Fellow Arianna Rodriguez rounded out the principals with her winsome and amorous take on Giannetta, Adina’s sidekick.

Debuting conductor Ramón Tebar led the Orchestra with a steady hand, in a reading marked with excitement and vigor. Tebar pushed the narrative forward while making sure the more contemplative moments didn’t get lost along the way. The San Francisco Opera Chorus, under the direction of John Keene, had sounded fabulous pretty much throughout the Fall Season and that night they may have outdone themselves by combining wonderful singing with fun acting!

This was a perfect presentation to close the glorious Fall Season of San Francisco Opera. So if you’re around, before catching The Nutcracker make sure you try to watch this as there are only two performances left. May all of you have a blessed Holiday season. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Photos: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera