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Salt Marsh Opera's 'L'elisir D'amore' fulfills to the brim

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Westerly - It's sometimes said of an over-achieving but undersized athlete that he plays big. After Friday night's performance of Donizetti's high-spirited comedy "L'elisir D'amore," the same can be said of the Salt Marsh Opera.

The opening opera of the company's 10th season, staged at the George Kent Performance Hall, had just about everything you'd hope for: strong principal voices, a fine 27-piece orchestra led by Music Director Simon Holt, engaging acting and stagecraft (crucial in the intimate setting) and lively action, brimming with witty details conjured by director Nathaniel Merchant.

The 1832 opera's storyline is simple. The peasant boy Nemorino pines for the lovely and mercurial Adina, who toys with his attentions by pretending to fall for the arrogant army sergeant, Belcore. To win Adina, Nemorino turns to an itinerant snake-oil salesman, Dr. Dulcamara, who sells him an elixir of love, which is really just wine. Nemorino drinks the bottle, and, not surprisingly, feels better about his prospects. The village girls learn that Nemorino's uncle just died and left him a fortune, though the boy himself hasn't heard the news. When the girls throw themselves at him, he's convinced the elixir's powers are working. Adina sees the girls fawning on him, feels both scorned and jealous, realizes she loves Nemorino after all, dumps Belcore and - voila! - happy ending.

All of this is propelled by fast-paced ensembles that boil up again and again from duets, the cast swarming in and out of the theater, set in the round in the converted church. The Performance Hall, with its booming and resonant acoustic, poses a challenge to opera production: It has no pit for the orchestra and no stage.

Director Merchant placed the action far out into the hall's floor, bringing the audience into the action (in the Act 2 wedding feast, the audience surrounding the dining table must have felt like guests themselves) and giving very close contact to some very fine singing.

The four principals were uniformly strong, never cutting corners, never skipping the octave leap for the thrilling finish. They played big.

As Adina, soprano Laura Shofner has the power to dominate ensembles from the start, with popping, sharp accents and a warm, rich tone. In the Act 2 aria "Prendi, prendi, per me sei libero," she floated above the orchestra with the classic beauty of bel canto, a sweet tone and finely controlled vibrato underlying the decorative coloratura runs. Shofner carried the character from the haughty tease, to the fuming scorned woman, to the charming lover with aplomb.

Tenor Brian Cheney, who was unforgettable here two seasons ago as Edgardo in "Lucia di Lammermoor," sang the role of Nemorino, and as with his previous Donizetti here, he combined nuance and force in a seemingly effortless performance. Playing the cipher to the opera's two schemers, Nemorino's role is largely vocal, and in the opera's one show-stopping aria, the sentimental "Una furtive largima," Cheney was expressive, powerful and beautifully emotive, especially in the final repeated "si può morir."

This opera succeeds or fails with Dr. Dulcamara, a comic archetype (think W.C. Fields) who is alternately blustery and wary, quick-thinking and buffoonish. Baritone Ron Loyd dominated the theater with his double-takes, his asides and tack-sharp comic timing that made a simple raised eyebrow speak volumes. His fast-paced sales pitch for his cure-all medicine - "Udite, udite, o rustici" - brings the opera to life in Act 1 and is the dominating motif in its musical and comic development.

As the vain Sgt. Belcore, baritone Christopher Burchett was a key vocal and comic presence, and as Adina's servant Gianetta, soprano Maria Alu animated the ensembles with her vivid, lively stage presence.

The 15-voice chorus, central to almost every scene, and the orchestra both filled the hall admirably.

The performance's drawbacks came from the placement of the orchestra behind the staging, requiring Holt to conduct it all with his back to the action. In several ensembles, and particularly in Loyd's patter-singing in Act 1, the orchestra kept lagging behind the singers. And in the balcony (fortunately with limited seating), the placement of the orchestra frequently drowned out even the full chorus, though the sound was balanced and rich on the floor.

Sharing the star billing for the success of this production with Loyd's Dulcamara was director Merchant, who salted the ensembles with action in every corner: flirting girls, leering soldiers and four principals all very full of themselves - at least after Nemorino drinks his bottle of wine.

In the tradition of leave 'em laughing, both acts ended with the cast racing through the audience to exit at the rear of the hall, and both exits showed Merchant's comic touches. As the first act ends, with everyone heading to the wedding feast for Adina and Belcore, Loyd's Dulcamara jumps in late, racing to catch up as he tucks a napkin over his shirt. At the happy ending, bringing up the rear are the four soldiers, carrying a wailing, scorned Burchett as Belcore.

Despite the wealth of melody woven through the ensembles, the madcap pace and reliance on patter singing can make this score feel repetitive and undescriptive. After all, Donizetti wrote more than 70 operas in less than 15 years, so it's no surprise he would fall back on Rossinian convention from time to time.

But Salt Marsh Opera's clever and high-spirited staging, combined with spotless singing, a performance to be repeated today at 3 p.m., brings this well-known piece to life once again.

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