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Power of imagination conquers hopeless love affair

The inspired composer Gaetano Donizetti was grinding out operas at a fast clip in the mid-19th century. His amazing record of 75 operas and 16 symphonies produced during his brief life was an inspiration to those who followed, especially Giuseppe Verdi, who become Donizetti’s successor as the grand master of Italian opera.

Depending on the nature of the commission, the composer created tragedies or comedies as required. His early efforts portraying the three queens, Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth (“Roberto Devereux”) established Donizetti as a master of his trade who also dramatized Sir Walter Scott’s classic work of “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Donizetti created opportunities for coloratura sopranos to be celebrated opera divas. Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills later took his bel canto roles to new heights.

“The Elixir of Love,” the second production of the San Diego Opera’s 2014 season is not one of those tragedies. It is filled with joyful music and comical stage play that has amused audiences since its premiere in Milan in 1832.

The plot is simple enough. A young peasant lad is in love with a wealthy and independent woman who shows no interest in her suitor. Along comes a quack doctor with a potion that he claims will change the lady’s mind. In fact it is merely a bottle of cheap Bordeaux wine.

The theme of the opera season, unrequited love, dominates the libretto. The peasant lad pines away while the young lady is captivated by a handsome sergeant and even agrees to marry him. The rejected suitor is driven to despair and sings one of the most famous tenor arias in opera.

Because of this popular aria, famous tenors Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras at one time made the role of Nemorino their signature opera character as do today’s younger tenors, such as Charles Castronovo and Stephen Costello.

The story line runs parallel to Donizetti’s other popular comic operas, “Don Pasquale” and “Daughter of the Regiment,” both seen here in recent SDO seasons. Boy loves girl, girl has other dreams, boy wins girl with the help of a matchmaker.

In “The Elixir of Love,” the perpetrator of the love match is Dr. Dulcamara, the itinerant charlatan performed in this production by basso buffo Kevin Burdette. Because of the fairy tale ending, a critic once referred to “The Elixir of Love” as a bucolic male variant of the Cinderella myth.

Donizetti operas dominated stages for most of the 19th century, with historic drama settings and light comedies suitable for the popular bel canto style of the day. Verdi and Wagner introduced a different form of opera that was followed by Puccini. Donizetti fell from the top of the standard repertory until 20th-century divas made bel canto popular again.

The volume of operas and symphonies composed by Donizetti in such a short life can probably be explained by his high energy from a bipolar disorder. Declining mental health led to his premature death at age 51 in an institution for the insane, complicated by symptoms of syphilis.

Debuts in this SDO production are Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, singing the love-sick lad Nemorino, and Moldovan soprano Tatiana Lisnic as the fickle maiden Adina; both are stars at international opera houses.

The American conductor Karen Kamensek, music director of the Staatsoper Hannover, also makes her house debut having conducted many productions at major European opera companies and festivals.

“The Elixir of Love” is sung in Italian with English text projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are 7 p.m. Feb. 15, 18 and 21; and 2 p.m. Feb. 23. For ticket information, call 619-533-7000 or visit www.sdopera.com

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.

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