Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plett published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

November 3, 1999. All rights reserved.

Heavy Work Behind a Light Potion of Opera

With 90 opera productions staged over the course of

her career, "L’Elisir d’Amore" is the only one of Donizetti’s

comedies that Muriel von Villas has never staged. Composed in 1832,

"Elixir of Love" is about country romance and an itinerant

quack who peddles a miraculous love potion. Yet while the story may

be remarkably lightweight, the issues that go into staging such a

work for the first time are far from inconsequential.

Director von Villas makes her Boheme Opera debut with "L’Elisir

d’Amore" or "The Elixir of Love," at the War Memorial

in Trenton on Friday, November 5, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, November 7,

at 3 p.m. The cast features Lorraine Ernest as Adina, Barton Green

as Nemorino, David Arnold as Belcore, and William Walker as Dr.

Dulcamara.

"I’ve never been a fan of slapstick and I don’t want any stock

characters," says the forthright von Villas. "What I’ve

discovered

in this piece is that there’s more to it than when I first looked

at it. It looks simple, but it’s actually one of the fussiest pieces

I’ve ever worked on."

"Four weeks of work has given us the privilege of studying the

piece in depth." Among the things the director and cast have

discovered:

"First, it has been really interesting in doing a piece without

social, moral, religious, or philosophical message. Let’s not create

a message, let’s just take the piece for what it is — a very sweet

love story."

Within the "sweet" story, however, is the

question

of how the roles should be interpreted. Von Villas describes Lorraine

Ernest, who is playing Adina for the first time, as "very much

a woman of the ’90s," and as such she faced some serious questions

as to how to interpret her role. "I asked her why," says von

Villas, " and she said it was because Adina’s always portrayed

as such a bitch. That’s how it’s always done. So I said, `Well let’s

do something different.’"

"We learned that Adina is not stuck up," she continues.

"For

instance in the opening scene she tells a story to her workers, and

later she invites them to her wedding festival. To me that makes her

a very down-to-earth, generous woman." Yes, she’s a little bit

fickle, von Villas says, but she’s far from being a rich bitch.

"Elixir of Love" opens with Adina buried in a book. The story

she is reading is so amusing that she reads it aloud. It’s the story

of love-struck Tristan and Queen Isolde — and the magic potion

the turned Isolde’s romantic indifference into a burning passion.

Nearby is the peasant Nemorino, already hopelessly in love with Adina

but doubtful that she will ever return his devotion.

Nemorino arrives in town to find the medicine show of Dr. Dulcamara,

a quack whose "magnificent medicine" is in fact ordinary

Bordeaux

red wine. Assuring the villagers that his brew will cure everything

from toothache to epilepsy, restore virility, erase wrinkles, and

make beautiful young maidens more beautiful, they willingly buy it

all.

After the excitement dies down, Nemorino approaches the doctor

explaining

that he needs something more, something like the potion Tristan gave

to Isolde. Immediately informing the gullible Nemorino that he is

one and the same doctor who actually dispensed the love potion to

Tristan, he makes another sale, this time for a gold piece.

The magic potion gets Nemorino tipsy, but he can’t help but notice

that all the village women seem suddenly attracted to him. They know

what he doesn’t yet know, that his rich uncle has died and left him

his fortune.

Dating from Donizetti’s creative middle years, "Elixir of

Love"

is an "opera buffa" known for its enduring melodies and the

notable comic character of the swindling Dr. Dulcamara. The lovestruck

Nemorino’s aria "Una furtiva lagrima," has become one of the

most famous tenor’s arias of all time.

As Adina, the well-to-do village girl with a fancy-free heart, Ernest

is a coloratura soprano, who played Musetta in Boheme Opera’s 1997

"La Boheme." She has appeared with New York City Opera,

Washington

Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, and the Berkshire Opera, among others,

and is known for her roles as Susanna in "Marriage of Figaro"

and the Queen of the Night in "The Magic Flute."

Also returning to the Boheme stage is tenor Barton Green as Nemorino,

the gullible young peasant who strives to win Adina’s love through

the mysteries of "the elixir of love." Green played Eisenstein

in "Die Fledermaus" for Boheme in 1998, the same year he made

his New York City Opera debut as Pinkerton in "Madama

Butterfly."

David Arnold plays the conceited sergeant Belcore who makes a play

for the eligible Adina. Baritone Arnold is a familiar presence on

Boheme Opera’s stage. He portrayed Enrico in the company’s 1996

production

of "Lucia di Lammermoor," and Count Almaviva in the 1998

"Marriage

of Figaro." An international artist, he is known for his

performances

of Britten’s "War Requiem" which he has sung at Carnegie Hall

and other venues. His recording of Mendelssohn "Elijah" was

released this year.

Gianetta, a peasant girl also angling for Nemorino’s

love, is played by Ann Marie Keogh.

Von Villas teaches voice, opera history, and directs the vocal theater

workshop at George Washington University. Her husband, Ed, is also

a conductor, whose day job at the Washington Post currently has gives

him responsibility for the paper’s Y2K compliance. The parents of

four children, ages 17 to 8, "three of whom were born on opening

nights of operas," the family lives in Falls Church, Virginia.

Von Villas was the youngest of six children, whose parents are now

deceased. "My mother was tone deaf, absolutely," says von

Villas, "but I think my father was a closet musician. He could

harmonize absolutely everything."

She earned her bachelor’s degree in voice at the Boston Conservatory,

and then stayed on an additional year as fellow to John Moriarty,

who now heads the New England Conservatory.

"There are two schools of thought in careers," says von

Villas.

"Did I want to go back to school or do what I was doing? My choice

was to be an apprentice to the masters of opera." She spent two

years working with Boris Goldovsky at his Massachusetts institute.

Goldovsky was a pioneer in establishing the concept of the

"singing

actor" in opera.

She then went on to study voice with Todd Duncan who became another

mentor. Duncan was the original Porgy in "Porgy and Bess,"

working directly with George Gershwin and Kurt Weill, among others.

He died two years ago at age 92. "One learns best through

experience

as opposed to reading it through a book."

"I probably consider myself an opera verismo expert," she

says, noting that Puccini’s "Tosca" and "Il Pagliagi"

are among her favorites. She is currently taken with Poulenc’s

"Dialogues

of the Carmelite Nuns," and enjoys the opportunity to work on

contemporary operas.

Opera, she says, is becoming more accessible. Her

children,

in particular, draw her attention to how much it is being used in

television advertising.

"It’s everywhere," says von Villas, who notes that, given

the logistical problems of assembling big casts at great expense,

contemporary opera tends toward the chamber rather than the grand

style.

Working to cultivate a new audience and keep opera alive, Boheme this

month introduces its new educational outreach program, Inside Opera,

that addresses the new New Jersey department of education core

curriculum

standards in the arts. Students of Timberlane Middle School in

Pennington,

Melvin Krebs Middle School in Hightstown, and Stuart Country Day

School

in Princeton will be offered a bird’s eye view of grand opera from

the standpoint of its singers.

Classroom instruction in the history and practice of grand opera is

followed by attendance at the invited dress rehearsal for

"Elixir"

on Wednesday, November 3, along with a backstage tour of the War

Memorial.

Since 1986 von Villas has directed the Opera Theater and Vocal

Workshop

at George Washington University, where she also teaches vocal and

opera history. Choosing education, she says, is a way "to provide

the same kind of mentoring that was provided to me." She is also

artistic and stage director of Opera International in Washington,

D.C., where she recently staged "Tosca."

"Continuing a legacy is really important to me," von Villas

says, "and something I feel is lacking in society right now."

— Nicole Plett

L’Elisir d’Amore , Boheme Opera, War Memorial, Trenton,

609-581-7200. Directed by Muriel von Villas and conducted by Joseph

Pucciatti, it is sung in Italian with English supertitles. Also

Sunday,

November 7, at 3 p.m. Pre-curtain by Joseph Pucciatti talk one hour

before each performance. $20 to $50. Friday, November 5, 8 p.m.;

and Sunday, November 7, 3 p.m.


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