The big hit tune in Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” — the “11 o’clock number” as it’s known in Broadway musicals — is “Una furtiva lagrima” (“A Furtive Tear”).

It’s the aria that opera lovers wait for — the number tenors rehearse endlessly in front of a mirror, adding gestures and ornaments and extravagant emotions. It inevitably becomes a recital piece dropped into the opera, largely unrelated to the drama of which it is a part.

Fearlessly ignoring the weight of tradition, the young tenor Leonardo Capalbo, playing Nemorino in Minnesota Opera’s charming production that opened Saturday night at the Ordway Center, sang it for real. This wasn’t a singer showing off. This was a believable and appealing character, a country bumpkin who, in order to win the woman he desires, buys a bottle of wine that he is conned into thinking is an elixir of love, a potion that will make him irresistible. Sadly, it hasn’t worked. He’s distraught.

The number, sung with rich, unforced tone, unaffected, effortless phrasing and heartfelt emotion, came across as a natural expression of the scene. Wisely, Capalbo cut the attention-getting extra cadenza at the end that so many tenors still interpolate into the aria. The result for Capalbo and his furtive tears was a huge ovation.

Both main characters are fairly nonstandard for this work — surely the most lovable of Italian comic operas. They have more depth than we’re used to. Small of stature, Capalbo’s Nemorino is almost Chaplinesque, running about the stage, trying to get his love, Adina, to notice him. Adina, usually played as a saucy, pert young thing — a rich widow — is portrayed by Nicole Cabell as a serious, rather bookish property owner who’s got an estate to run. She has a lot on her mind, and one of the things she’s got on her mind is Nemorino. She loves him — we see that right away — but she hasn’t quite figured that out. Expressing all this was Cabell’s attractive, light, lyric soprano with its bright, agile top register.

Helena Binder’s staging of the opera, with its spare but picturesque set (and lighting) by Marcus Dilliard, is smart and — most of the time — convincing. Binder aims at believable sentiment and high spirits rather than slapstick. She gives the chorus numbers dramatic focus. These excellent singers don’t just stand still and sing to the balcony.

Binder has two fine comic actors to work with: Andrew Wilkowske, whose snake-oil salesman, Dr. Dulcamara, is a lovable and desperate old rogue, and David Pershall as Belcore, who fancies himself a lady-killer.

(Two questions: Would Belcore, a mere army sergeant, grab Adina, the richest woman in the village, and kiss her forcefully? No way. She could pay some guys to make him disappear. And though Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes look bright and apt for an early 20th-century Italian village, why is Adina in a peasant dress? Is she economizing?)

Finally, a good bit of the charm of this production comes from the lithe and buoyant conducting of Leonardo Vordoni.


Michael Anthony writes about music.