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June 3, 2014

Opera Theatre of St. Louis: 'Elixir of Love' is a grand night of singing and humor

With his lush, lyrical voice and joyous delivery, Texas tenor Rene Barbera added an exclamation point to the "beautiful singing" promise of the bel canto opera, "The Elixir of Love," on opening night.

For those who hadn't seen Barbera's triumphant "Daughter of the Regiment" at Opera Theatre in 2011, his reputation preceded him, including sweeping three first places at Placido Domingo's Operalia competition.

Barbera's winsome personality helped Gaetano Donizetti's 1832 romantic comedy opera capture the St. Louis audience's fancy Saturday. He's a natural, graceful entertainer with a sweet smile and an exuberance that comes from those high notes reaching the heavens.

He headlines a vibrant cast featuring a scene-stealing bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the colorful quack Dr. Dulcamara, and popular baritone Tim Mix as the arrogant sergeant Belcore.

Artistic director Jim Robinson updated this work to set it in a small Iowa town in 1914, right before World War I. Jose Maria Condemi has fluidly staged it, abetted by the quaint town square designed by Allen Moyer.

Nemorino, an ice cream vendor, is smitten with Adina, the town librarian, but she won't consider anyone who does not measure up to her standards. He tries to win her over, with the help of traveling salesman Dr. Dulcamara's potion. She resists until she figures out what love means to her.

Mezzo-soprano Susannah Biller made her debut, showcasing her considerable vocal gifts. Had she been a stronger actress, I would have believed her declaration of love more.

However, Biller and Barbera sing three duets that are breathtakingly beautiful.

Leela Subramaniam was noteworthy as Giannetta, and the chorus of townsfolk is exuberant.

"Bel canto style" literally means "beautiful singing," but must feature theatricality as well to bring out the emotions. And the expressive cast has fun with this light-hearted work, one of the world's most often performed operas.

The flimsy plot is stretched as far as it can go, but provides a grand night of singing, indeed, along with well-placed humor.

Music director Stephen Lord worked his magic with a masterful touch, keeping it bright and effusive, superbly accompanied by St. Louis Symphony musicians.

Enthusiastic ovations greeted the performers at curtain call, with shouts of "Bravi!" This is an enjoyable opera for beginners to experience.

The industrious production has striking eye candy, including a vintage ice cream truck and a retro vehicle with working sidecar that both move on stage.

Amanda Seymour coordinated the vintage costumes with a keen eye for period detail and an appealing pastel palette for the women. The men's outfits were more flamboyant, with Dulcamara's suits vivid and stylish.

The opera is performed in English, and supertitles are projected on either side of the thrust stage.

"The Elixir of Love" is the second offering in Opera Theatre's 39th festival season (May 24-June 29). Four operas are performed in a six-week period each season.

This summer's slate includes Mozart's "The Magic Flute," revisioned by fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi, now in rotation; the world premiere of "27," about Gertrude Stein's years in Paris with such literary luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, June 14; and "Dialogues of the Carmelites," featuring Lebanon's international sensation Christine Brewer as a nun during the French Revolution, June 18.

Note: Free opera previews are presented one hour before each performance in the recital hall of the Community Music School, which is next door to the Loretto-Hilton Center.

What: "The Elixir of Love"

Who: Opera Theatre of St. Louis

When: 8 p.m. May 31 and June 4, 6, 8, 12, 21, 25

Where: Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis 63119

Tickets: 314-961-0644;

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