Out director on laughs and ‘Love’ in comic opera

Never let it be said that conventional opera cannot be outrageously fun, especially when it comes to Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti’s legendarily comic opera (or melodramma giocoso) “L’Elisir d’Amore.”

For English-speaking audiences, that’s “The Elixir of Love,” a bel canto opera that premiered in 1832 in Milan and touched upon issues of love and romance, poverty and wealth, honor and hubris — all in a tiny village in the Basque country at the tail end of the 18th century.

That setting, however, is not the case for Opera Philadelphia, which will close out its season with the show, running at Academy of Music April 29-May 8. Under the leadership of director Stephen Lawless, the company has re-conceptualized the opera to take place during World War II, with all of its requisite time-period accouterments intact. To complicate matters, this week tenor Dimitri Pittas had to step in for the lead lovelorn role of “Nemorino,” as Christopher Tiesi had to withdraw from the production due to illness.

“Dimitri originated Nemorino for me in Santa Fe when the production was new, and remarkably remembers it all, so I don’t feel nervous in the least,” said the openly gay Lawless, whose operatic credits read longer than the script from “Rigoletto.” “I’m sad that the wonderful Chris Tiesi wasn’t able to recover in time for the show, but utterly delighted that Dimitri is here.”

That’s some welcome for Lawless during his first time in Philadelphia.

“Culturally and socially, it feels totally different and individual from any of the other American cities I’ve worked in — which is most of them — and the Academy of Music is the most beautiful opera house in North America. Period,” he said.

Lawless originally directed a production of “Elixir” in Los Angeles in 1996, one that travelled a lot — “L.A. three times, Washington, D.C., three times, Geneva, Madrid, Graz and Houston” — and said he adores the bel canto masterpiece.

“Like Rossinian comedies, there is always a dark side to Donizetti,” says the British-born director. Lawless sees Donizetti as a hugely undervalued figure in opera and compositional circles, possibly due to the fact that “musicologists believe that someone so prolific could not therefore be any good.” Usually viewed in comparison with either Rossini or Verdi, Donizetti is — in Lawless’ estimation — his own man and equally as good a composer and consummate as a musical dramatist — to say nothing of being downright funny.

“I’m always interested in the interplay between comedy and tragedy … how, in a comic opera, there is always something darker lurking and how in a serious opera there is always a darkly ironic vein of near-comedy,” he said. “I think it’s what I would define the term ‘Shakespearean’ as.”

Finding that balance in “Elixir” is tricky, but Donizetti described the piece as a melodrama (comic opera with serious overtones) to begin with.

“The comedy always has the capacity to tumble into tragedy,” Lawless said. “Unlike Rossini, though — who writes deliberately brittle comedies — Donizetti writes comedies that have an almost Shakespearean glow about them, where even the ‘bad guys’ are redeemable.”

When the Santa Fe Opera Company asked Lawless to do a new production in 2009, the director agreed, not just because of his love of the show, but because he wanted to clarify the story’s drama by changing its time period.

“It was on this production that I first worked with my friend Corrado Rovaris [a director of Opera Philadelphia],” Lawless said. “The revelation for me in 2009 was not only how well the change of period worked but Corrado’s conducting. It made ‘Elisir’ sound as if Donizetti had written the piece yesterday.”

From here, Lawless talked about the clash of cultures in the production that he found difficult to visualize in its original form: one between the military and the civilian. He believed that, by updating the period to immediately after World War II — “and having the soldiers as Americans in an Italian village” — he could make the dramatic points clearer. “Nemorino’s function in the village is somewhat ambiguous in the original, so we gave him a profession — the village mechanic, somebody who was good with their hands and whom the whole village knew and loved.”

Lawless said his favorite part in “Elixir” is the Giannetta scene, in which the chorus ladies find out that Nemorino has inherited a fortune: “pure comic genius and a joy to direct.” n

For more information or tickets, visit www.operaphila.org