Bel Canto Barbie & other gems: Opera Omaha's Elixir of LoveReview
Imagine a bel canto version of a Brat Pack movie. It might sound strange, but Opera Omaha’s production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love combines a timeless operatic love story with modern high school movie tropes to create the perfect comedic cocktail. The emotions are universal, so whether the setting is an 18th-century village or a 20th-century art school, it still feels believable and genuine. Opera Omaha provided a fresh and fun take on a beloved opera classic that is sure to please opera aficionados and newcomers alike.
All the stereotypical high school characters were present - the popular girls, the sensitive outsider, the bullies.
Every design element of the production stayed true to the 80s-90s teen movie aesthetic. The dingy, graffiti saturated scenery, designed by Tiziano Santi, was highlighted by projections of urban landscapes and colorful skies through the large, industrial windows. Lighting designer, D.M. Wood, employed subtle shifts that provided comedic and emotional focal points which were crucial in the large ensemble scenes. Costume designer Claudia Penigotti and wig/make up designer Ronell Oliveri absolutely nailed the archetypal styles we all expect from our favorite high school films, making each character feel instantly recognizable.
While The Elixir of Love is a comedic masterpiece, Donizetti’s music ranges from brilliant and bubbly to languid and lush. The orchestra, led by David Agler, showcased this mercurial ambiance with clarity and nuance.
The chorus, under the direction of Sean Kelly, was comprised of clearly defined cliques - each faction reminiscent of an iconic high school movie. The majority were serving serious Fame vibes with leg warmers and side ponies set against an art school backdrop. Adina and her cheerleader pals looked like they walked straight off the set of Clueless in their plaid mini skirts and flawless make-up. Belcore’s gang felt like a mashup of the T-Birds and the Cobra Kai without any of the fighting skills. All the stereotypical high school characters were present - the popular girls, the sensitive outsider, the bullies. (They even had a quirky kid who always wears a fedora! Every school has one of those guys, I swear.)
Director Rosetta Cucchi utilizes the chorus with strategic brilliance, enhancing each scene visually with their presence. Their comedic antics in the background never felt distracting or superfluous. This is exactly what an opera chorus should be. Each and every one of them felt like a fully realized character, making the world around the main characters lively and relatable. Ensemble comedy relies on great performances by every individual, and this chorus delivered.
Deanna Breiwick looked like Bel Canto Barbie onstage. She was bold and beautiful with a voice to match. I was surprised to learn that this was her debut as Adina because it sounded as if she has been singing this role for years. Breiwick’s vocal delivery was a charming balance of warmth and vibrance, and she portrayed both Adina’s cute, spitfire moments and mature, emotional vulnerability with a natural ease. The soprano’s technique was impressive, featuring velvety smooth coloratura, glittering high notes, and a decrescendo to die for. Adina is the popular girl that you kind of want to hate, but she’s so damn lovable that you can’t. Breiwick is a serious bel canto powerhouse, and I eagerly look forward to seeing her in Des Moines Metro Opera’s Candide this summer..
Taylor Stayton is effortlessly charming in the role of Nemorino. His youthful exuberance instantly has the audience rooting for the awkward, beanie wearing outsider. Stayton’s voice was made for Donizetti’s music with his liquid legato and silvery tone that cuts straight to the heart, and his impassioned performance of the famous aria, “Una furtiva lagrima,” was the highlight of the night.
His look felt like a mashup of Wooderson from Dazed and Confused and Leo from That 70’s Show.
Steven LaBrie sang the role of Belcore, the blustery high school bully. Rather than a soldier, he is a red leather clad gangster, trailed by a pack of incompetent cronies. Belcore is a bit of a poser who talks big but fails to follow through. He never even lands a punch on Nemorino once! (I mean, the guy wears a wallet chain which I think tells you all you need to know about him.) LaBrie’s rich, baritone voice made it hard to believe that Belcore was a high schooler, but perhaps he got held back a few years. The singer definitely sold the bad boy look onstage, looking physically threatening and brandishing a switchblade. However, LaBrie also managed to play up Belcore’s oblivious buffoonery, showcasing the character’s pompous mannerisms to great effect. Adina sees him for the fool he is, and Belcore is too egotistical to realize that she is just using him.
Alessandro Luongo was pure comedy gold in the role of Dulcamara. His look felt like a mashup of Wooderson from Dazed and Confused and Leo from That 70’s Show. Riding in on a motorcycle and peddling drugs in a trench coat, the bass displayed the easy confidence of a smooth talking con man. Not content to relegate Luongo to a few key scenes, Rosetta Cucchi made Dulcamara an omnipresent source of hilarity throughout the opera, inserting him into the life of the high school and creating funny moments in the background of every scene.
Dulcamara has multiple secret rendezvous with school staff members, DJs for a party, and models for a painting class. In one particularly memorable scene, the girls, led by Shelby VanNordstrand as the spunky Giannetta, engage in a slow motion cat fight over Nemorino in an art studio, smashing canvases over heads and smearing paint on each other. Dulcamara gets dragged into the turmoil against his will, and his facial expressions as he kept trying to escape had me in stitches!
The production stays true to the core emotions of Donizetti’s piece, but the familiar setting and pop culture references highlighted those themes without overshadowing them.
With a stellar cast like this, it was a real treat to enjoy Donizetti’s plethora of brilliant duets throughout the opera. The Act I duet between Dulcamara and Nemorino was an absolute delight, radiating comedic energy with lively patter and playful banter. Adina and Nemorino had vocal compatibility and dramatic chemistry in every scene, and their final love duet was convincingly sweet and touching. Even when they were straddling a pommel horse and arguing during gym class, Breiwick and Stayton provided vocal fireworks. (I would definitely go to the gym a lot more if people broke out into bel canto confrontations.)
Opera Omaha modernizes The Elixir of Love in the best ways. The production stays true to the core emotions of Donizetti’s piece, but the familiar setting and pop culture references highlighted those themes without overshadowing them. It is a timeless story that we have seen in many romantic comedies: Underdog boy falls in love with the popular girl and eventually wins her heart. Donizetti may have written this opera 187 years ago, but we can all still connect to the heartaches and joys of love. Being a teenager in love has always been a struggle. The Elixir of Love, no matter what the setting, has humor and heart, and in the end, that’s the only way to survive high school.