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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.
"I’ve never been a fan of slapstick and I don’t want any stock
characters," says the forthright von Villas. "What I’ve
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
"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
Within the "sweet" story, however, is the
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.
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
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
After the excitement dies down, Nemorino approaches the doctor
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
Dating from Donizetti’s creative middle years, "Elixir of
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,
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
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
of "Lucia di Lammermoor," and Count Almaviva in the 1998
of Figaro." An international artist, he is known for his
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
"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
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
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
of the Carmelite Nuns," and enjoys the opportunity to work on
Opera, she says, is becoming more accessible. Her
in particular, draw her attention to how much it is being used in
"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
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
standards in the arts. Students of Timberlane Middle School in
Melvin Krebs Middle School in Hightstown, and Stuart Country Day
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
on Wednesday, November 3, along with a backstage tour of the War
Since 1986 von Villas has directed the Opera Theater and Vocal
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
609-581-7200. Directed by Muriel von Villas and conducted by Joseph
Pucciatti, it is sung in Italian with English supertitles. Also
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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