By Robert Croan
Mario Chang has no qualms about touting the Palm Beach Opera production of L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), in which he will be the star this weekend. (The show runs Friday through Sunday.)
“Tell the people that if they stay away they’re missing something very good,” says the Colombian tenor, who will play the central role of Nemorino. “This production is very funny. The opera has funny parts and sad parts, and [stage director Fenlon Lamb] emphasizes the funny parts.”
Composer Gaetano Donizetti and his librettist Felice Romani called their opera a melodramma giocoso, which means, literally, a cheerful melodrama. The story is a lighthearted take on the legend of Tristan and Isolde – three decades before Wagner’s monumental tragic music drama.
The peasant Nemorino loves Adina, the richest girl in town, and when she rejects him in favor of the dashing soldier Belcore, he buys a bogus love potion from the charlatan Dr. Dulcamara. When local girls flock around Nemorino, Adina realizes she loves him and sheds a furtive tear. It turns out that the girls had learned that Nemorino’s wealthy uncle has just died and left him a fortune, but Dulcamara gets credit for the happy ending.
While most Italian operas of this period were vehicles for women singers, L’elisir was composed in 1832 for a popular tenor of the time, Giambatista Genero. The opera’s most memorable moments belong to the tenor: notably the aria “Una furtiva lagrima” (A furtive tear), which has become one of opera’s greatest hits.
The standard solo in an early 19th-century Italian opera was a slow aria, with a lyrical melody over a simple chordal (or broken chord) accompaniment, followed by a fast ending, often in a dance rhythm. The slow aria was called cavatina, and the fast part a cabaletta, meant to show off the vocalist’s manifold types of virtuosity and technical prowess. The voice was primary, and those decades became known as the bel canto era – a term that literally means beautiful singing. “Una furtiva lagrima,” however, is a stand-alone cavatina without any cabaletta at all.
It’s hard to believe today that this solo was a last-minute insertion. Almost every collection of tenor arias includes “Una furtiva lagrima.” Youtube.com contains more that 100 versions, including a violin transcription by Joshua Bell. There’s even a karaoke disc, as well as an arrangement for solo harp.
Chang will be the latest in a long line of singers who include the iconic “Three Tenors.” Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, different as they were from each other, found common ground in this role. More recent protagonists at the Metropolitan Opera have included Juan Diego Florez, Ramon Vargas and Matthew Polenzani. Chang sang two performances of the role at the Met in 2016, taking over the part that season from Vittorio Grigolo.
The aria has a folk-like character, its plaintive melody first stated by a solo bassoon, then two verses to the same music – with a few minor changes the second time and a rousing cadenza at the end. As Chang describes it, “the music is melancholy but the words are actually happy, because Nemorino now realizes that Adina loves him. The challenge in singing it is to show that you’re fulfilling your dream while you’re singing sad music.”
In the manner of his time, the original protagonist sang this music with a light sound, going into what we now call “head-voice” for the highest notes. Since then, however, there has been a shift in technique to a modern dramatic tenor sound. The dramatic interpretation began with the legendary Enrico Caruso, who recorded “Una furtiva lagrima” in the early days of the phonograph – several times, beginning in 1902. Since then, the aria – and the role – has become the property of tenors of every description, and there are innumerable recordings to document the way their diverse interpretations show different aspects of this amiable and naïve character.
“I’m a lyric tenor,” Chang says. “This role helps me to stay vocally healthy. It helps me to remember healthy vocal habits, to keep the voice light and fresh. And it’s fun because in this opera nobody dies!”
There’s more to the role than just one aria, however. Nemorino’s first solo, “Quanto è bella,” is a more conventional cavatina followed by a cabaletta; while the Act 1 finale comes to a virtual halt for his extended solo, “Adina credimi” – not quite a full-scaled aria but a tear-jerking two pages that never fail to make their effect. And he participates in infectiously tuneful duets with each of the other three leads.
Chang points out how each of those duets requires a different mindset: “Adina – he must show her he loves her; with Dulcamara, he’s excited about everything being offered; with Belcore, he has to accept a bad deal.”
The tenor talks about studying the role with music director James Levine, when he was a student in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann program: “We did the Act 1 finale, which includes Nemorino singing ‘La-ra-las’ while drunk. Maestro Levine taught me to keep the short notes in the tempo, not to exaggerate, to be very precise. That’s my favorite part of the opera, where he’s drunk, because it’s the funniest.”
The most difficult thing about the role, he says, is “having to sing beautiful lines while you’re so active on stage. Not to overdo, so that the voice won’t suffer.”
L’elisir d’amore runs Friday through Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Performances are at 7:30 Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. In addition to Mario Chang as Nemorino, Andriana Chuchman is Adina, Alexey Lavrov is Belcore, Musa Ngqungwana is Dulcamara and Alexandra Raszkazoff is Giannetta. Staging is by Fenlon Lamb, and the orchestra and chorus are conducted by David Stern. For tickets, visit pbopera.org or kravis.org, or call 561-833-7888.