Art, like love, conquers all. That you currently must wear a mask to get to enjoy it in person seems a relatively small price to pay.

After a year off because of the pandemic, Opera Maine returned on Wednesday night for the first of two performances of a “reimagined version” of a popular 1832 opera. Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” is the sort of light comic work that can appeal to those who otherwise might flinch at the mere mention of opera.

Director Dona D. Vaughn reset the show in 1960 Naples in a sort of visual homage to some of the Italian film comedies of the period. A teeming piazza, full of cafes, carts, motorbikes and assorted characters, was spread across the wide Merrill Auditorium stage. A principal cast of five professional performers, most in period work or street costumes, summoned the spirit of Italian bel canto opera through consistently engaging performances of Donizetti’s many lovely melodies.

Soprano Sarah Tucker took the lead role of the flirty Adina, a café owner who likes to read about the famous lovers Tristan and Isolde while playing the romantic field herself.  She is pursued by likable schlub Nemorino, played by tenor Joshua Wheeker, a mechanic who can’t shake off his attraction for the seemingly unattainable beauty. The arrogant soldier Belcore, played by baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco, seems the more likely match for Adina.

Nemorino sees a chance when the traveling huckster Dulcamera, played by baritone Gary Simpson, offers to sell him a potion sure to make him irresistible to Adina. He buys the fake elixir, drinks it, and decides he needs more when the first bottle fails to bring the desired result. Penniless (or, lira-less), he agrees to join the army at the urging of a scheming Belcore, thereby earning a signing bonus with which he can buy more of the supposed magic remedy (really, just wine).

Joshua Wheeker as Nemorino, center, in “The Elixir of Love.”

Through it all, Adina comes to realize there may be more to Nemorino than she thought, especially when he begins to attract the attention of florist Gianetta, played by Shaina Martinez, who has learned that the mechanic has inherited a fortune. Love ultimately prevails between Nemorino and Adina, as they sort through all the confusion of motivations and choices to recognize and express their true feelings.

Supported by an orchestra conducted by Israel Gursky and a chorus led by Nicolás Alberto Dosman, the principal singers each established their character’s persona well. Wheeker’s Nemorino brought his plaintive dilemma to a head with a moving rendition of the famous romanza “Una furtiva lagrima” (“A furtive tear”), while Tucker’s aria “Prendi, per me sei libero” (“Take it, I have freed you”) was equally touching in its expressive detail.

Simpson was a crowd favorite, with his blustery Dulcamera hustling the locals with “Udite, udite, o rustici” (“Listen, listen, oh peasants”). Orozco and Gianetti explored the extremes of vocal range, the former low, the latter high, with brief but effective moments in the spotlight.

Supertitles set (very) high above the stage translated the sung Italian into English with admirable concision. The masked but nonetheless enthusiastic crowd seemed delighted to take in every nuance during the thoroughly entertaining 100-minute performance.

The colorful set was designed by Christopher Akerlind, who also designed the lighting. Costumes by Millie Hiibel and hair and makeup by Amanda Clark added style points to a production that likely won over many hearts on opening night.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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