When The Elixir of Love raised its frivolous head on the Academy of Vocal Arts season, one had to remember that this organization functions to train singers for the real world, which can mean making something out of very little. In the up-and-down opera world, singers never know when they'll end up in a revival of, say, The Pajama Game to make ends meet.
But such a low opinion of The Elixir of Love was defied, possibly smashed, from the first moments of AVA's Saturday opening. In the tiny Warden Theater, where productions are best regarded as sketches of the real thing, here was a handsome set that appeared to have suffered no compromise. Costumes were stylish. Wigs fit! An updated concept placed the opera in Mussolini's Italy in World War II, giving it new life.
The director was Nic Muni, a seasoned innovator who ran the Cincinnati Opera for years and often works with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. His contention is that Elixir was intended to have serious underpinnings — composer Gaetano Donizetti called the 1832 opera buffa a melodramma giocoso — and, in any case, gave deeper motivation to the simple plot about a boy seeking a girl with a fake love potion. In this production, when the stereotypical minx Adina appears to be spurning the bumpkin who loves her, she's actually saving him from execution by a jealous, well-armed Blackshirt. Such touches counted for a lot. The opera went from being casually formulaic to purposely lightweight.
The oddest part: AVA's latest star in the making, mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa, was very much seen but very seldom heard. The setting was a library, and in a role seemingly created for this production, Mezzacappa was the stern librarian who not only dominated the room but, amid the happy ending, seemed to end up with a guy of her own. This created an implied secondary romantic plot that was obligatory in 1950s Broadway musicals, and for a reason: It takes a bit of weight off leading characters who may be too stereotypical to really carry an entire opera. And what a fascinating opportunity for her to create a character using everything but her primary strength.
Of course, this opera wouldn't be done at all were it not a good vocal showcase. And the big discovery, for me, was soprano Sydney Mancasola in the leading role of Adina. She's a classic soubrette with a voice that's bright, focused, accurate, and projects an air of effortlessness, partly thanks to the solidity of her vocal technique, partly due to her comfort level onstage. She sashayed around as if she owned the place. And she did.
The other principal singers were promising but not at home in this genre. Though Luigi Boccia delivered the goods in Nemorino's famous Act II aria, "Una Furtiva Lagrima," his promising lyric tenor perhaps has a bit too much meat for this type of bel canto opera. Much the same could be said for Wes Mason as his rival Belcore and Musa Ngqungwana as Dr. Dulcamara, the elixir salesman, though it's hard to imagine anybody minding amid such a satisfying overall package. One would be lucky if any future Elixir encounters are this good. A small but chronic problem: The AVA chorus is made up of divas and divos in training, and they don't exactly stay in the background. Given a chance, they steal focus.
Additional performances Tuesday and Thursday at the Academy of Vocal Arts' Warden Theater, Saturday at Central Bucks South High School in Warrington, May 8 and 10 at the Haverford School, and May 13 at the Gordon Theater in Camden. Information: www.avaopera.org or 215-735-1685.