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Donizetti for the Soul in Detroit:
Art and the Economic Breakdown

By Scott Mooney
April 2009

L’Eliser d’Amore (The Elixer of Love).
by Gaetano Donizetti:
Libretto by Felice Romani
Michigan Opera Theatre March 2009
Conductor: Stephen Lord
Director: James Robinson

The Michigan Opera Theater (MOT) March 2009 production of the Elixir of Love was introduced with a passionate plea from the General Director David DiChiera, to recognize that great art is not a luxury, but an absolute necessity, especially in these difficult economic times. With many classical music organizations in financial trouble and one major opera house having already closed its doors, the MOT in depression-wracked Detroit has already cut out performances, as it finds itself with fewer corporate gifts and decreased ticket sales, as “a night at the opera” is increasingly seen as a “non-essential” economic purchase.
Yet, perhaps the financial troubles facing the arts have their roots in a soil not as shallow as the recent years’ economic decline. Perhaps the several decades-long takeover of banal pop-culture as a replacement for classical culture in the United States should have signaled the approaching breakdown crisis which has now arrived. So, this begs the question, what is the connection between an economy and art? Is art merely a luxury to be enjoyed when times are good, but triaged when times turn sour? And, is the crisis in Art merely the current lack of discretionary cash in the population, or is there a longer-term degeneration of culture, which has sown the seeds of the economic crisis we now face? Which is the cause and which the effect? This dilemma should signify for us that the moment in history at which we’ve arrived is not simply a cyclical downturn, a slowing economy, but an existential crisis facing civilization.

In such a crisis as this, as in previous eras where wars, chaos or economic collapse prevailed, it was often the power of classical music that transformed the population from a degraded mindset to an elevated one. To have our citizens reach for “that which is better” is of the utmost urgency now. Gaetano Donizetti understood this, and composed numerous tragic and dramatic historical operas with precisely this idea in mind. In the Elixir of Love, a comic opera, we see Donizetti and his librettist Felice Romani delightfully uplift and educate the audience to distinguish reality from fakery—a critical lesson for a nation in crisis.

The Elixir of Love

John Grigaitis
Stephen Costello as Nemorino and Burak Bilgili as Dr. Dulcamarain the The Elixir of Love

The setting of this production is changed to early 20th century Napa Valley, from the original Basque country in 1830, a time full of wars and political strife throughout Europe. It is the story of a young, simple but honest peasant, Nemorino (Stephen Costello, tenor), who is hopelessly in love with the beautiful Adina, (Ailyn Perez, soprano) owner of a rural estate. She is fickle, entertaining herself with a new flirtation whenever boredom descends upon her. Amused for the present moment by taming the advances of the “modest” (!) Sergeant Belcore ( Dalibor Jenis). Adina advises Nemorino, who is pleading the cause of true love, that he’d better give it up, in a beautiful soparano aria:

“Wouldst though cure this idle madness
For ’tis madness to think of constant love
Then like me, with mirth and gladness,
Thou’lt each hour some new attachment prove.”

Desperate to woo her from her flirtations of marriage to Belcore, Nemorino, hoping for Queen Isotta’s fabled magic elixir of love, is lead into the snare of the traveling shyster, Dr. Dulcamara, (Burak Bilgili, Bass), freshly arrived on the scene hocking his magic cure-all potion: to cure toothaches, old age, women’s wrinkles, consumption, deafness, rickets, you-name-it, etc., ad infinitum. (Perhaps Dulcamara will be discovered to have been the true author of the Wall St. Bail-Out and all stimulus packages!) Selling Nemorino a bottle of Bordeaux wine, Dulcamara gives him a set of instructions for “l’eliser” that will guarantee Dulcamara’s unhindered departure before Nemorino realizes he’s been taken for a fool.
With the first sips of courage, secure in his inevitable triumph in becoming irresistible to Adina, Nemorino cools his usual pathetic sighs of affection towards her, and waits. Adina, troubled at the absence of those usual sighs, schemes to punish Nemorino for this new indifference towards her. As her continued flirtation with Belcore does little to interest the confidently amused Nemorino, Adina, seeking revenge, accepts Belcore’s plea to marry that very night instead of her previous ultimatum of three days hence, not long enough for Dulcamara’s elixir to take full effect upon Adina. Nemorino is now anxiously disturbed, and he sings:

“I tell thee truly, wait, I conjure thee,/
Until tomorrow./
But one short day, love, but one short day./
The future, dearest, thou’lt spend in sorrow,/
If to my suit, love, thou now say nay.”

Adina is viciously satisfied in her revenge, and Nemorino, is now wholly defeated for his presumption to out-do a sergeant in the battle of love. However, Adina’s revenge cannot be complete if Nemorino is not present to suffer the wedding ceremony, and so, in his absence she delays and delays signing the notary’s documents, all to Belcore’s frustration, until eventually she flees the ceremony all together. Nemorino, unaware of what’s transpired, pleads with Dulcamara for a resolution to his despair: “Where’s the use of being loved tomorrow by one who is to be wedded today. I want to be loved now, instantly!”

Dulcamara figures he can sell the foolish Nemorino another bottle of elixir, but the young man is flat broke. Belcore, confused and frustrated with Adina, happens upon Nemorino in his plight and, as any honorable rival would,

John Grigaitis
Ailyn Prez as Adina and Dalibor Jenis as Sergeant Belcore in the The Elixir of Love

Belcore offers Nemorino the money he needs, so long as Nemorino enlist into the military, removing him from the equation. Nemorino signs and heads straight for Dulcamara for another bottle of Bordeaux. In the meantime the village women have just learned of Nemorino’s large inheritance from his just-departed uncle (though Nemorino hasn’t), and begin to woo this most eligible bachelor in town. Adina, in the meantime, having fled her own wedding, realizes her attempts to hurt Nemorino are driven by a deeply buried true love which she has suppressed for the security of being fickle. Having learned that he sacrificed his freedom to win her love she purchases his enlistment papers back from Belcore. Adina admits her love to Nemorino; they marry. Sgt. Belcore finds romance instead with Giannetta, (Juliet Petrus) a peasant girl, and Dr. Dulcamara goes into the business of making love elixir

All the voices of the singers in this Michigan Opera performance were superb, and the arias mentioned above were two examples of that. The sweetness of Stephen Costello’s tenor (Nemorino) and the warmth of Ailyn Perez’s soprano(Adina) were sufficient to testify to the overall uplifting effect the beautiful bel canto singing created in this writer, and presumably each other member of the audience. The ensembles as well as the solo arias were delightful to hear, and were performed very well musically. However, the director James Robinson’s decision to change the setting of the opera to what he believed a more “accessible” historical setting absolutely detracted from what could have been a deeper impact.

Historical Specificity

What could be more accessible to any audience than the story of an infatuated Nemorino and his fickle Adina? The story “plot” is so universal it could probably be set in any geographic location, at any time, in a wide assortment of costumes, but there are many other aspects of this Donizetti work that are specific, and arbitrarily changing the time and place has the effect of flattening out crucial ironies, rather than drawing them out in the minds of the audience.

Important nuances in Donizetti’s composition do not survive directors’ efforts at time travel, and instead lead to absurdities. For example, in this production, it is not the soldiers occupying the town in Italy, in war, but rather the local high school football team(!), intrigued by the offer of a signing bonus should they join Uncle Sam’s Army. In 19th century Italy, “occupying the town” meant also occupying the bed and its daughter of a helpless peasant father. If Donizetti’s intention be a political one, then Nemorino has been robbed of what is not merely a victory over the arrogant individual of Sgt. Belcore, but what is the victory of “true and modest” Love over the arrogant and corrupt institution which was feudal society.

Again, while the apparent plot seems so adaptable, adaptation brings into the periphery of the audience member’s mind unnecessary and annoying questions. Though never directly specified, the historical backdrop of this performance is implicitly WWI USA as indicated by the costumes and vintage Army recruitment poster. Such a precisely historic, definitive event as WWI forces into the unfolding of the plot within the audience’s minds powerful questions. Yes, perhaps in old Europe our protagonist Nemorino might safely disregard the irrational ruling class’s impulses towards imperial war, as the purpose of those wars bears upon his identity within such a society, and though so doing, still garner favor with the audience. But in a Democratic Republic, in which the citizen’s duty is to fight for the nation’s defense, or perhaps prevent his nation’s plunge into purposeless military pursuits, Nemorino’s indifference to the cause for which he has sacrificed his freedom in pursuit of Love potion confines him to the character of merely a country bumpkin, the infatuated hopeless romantic. Indeed, bound within old Europe, a narrow preoccupation with love above all else might be our protagonist’s redeeming quality, (if, that is, he were without means of waging a republican revolution!). Astute members of Robinson’s audience however, might consider Nemorino’s indifference to the world events around him as staining an otherwise noble character. It is perhaps the “vagueness” which Robinson dreads in Donizetti’s intended setting of this opera.

John Grigaitis
Stephen Costello as Nemorino and Ailyn Prez as Adina in the The Elixir of Love

To his credit, Robinson drew out of an already very humorous story some very funny scenes of interaction between characters, as in the scene in which Nemorino’s confidence swells with the first tastes of l’eliser and he decides it prudent for the moment not to bother Adina with his usual sighs, for soon enough she won’t be able to resist anyway. Adina is immediately troubled by Nemorino’s sudden indifference to her and seeks to arouse that familiar attention from him. Robinson employs Adina’s handkerchief, “carelessly” dropped at Nemorino’s feet as she waits expectantly for its retrieval and chivalric return. Adina’s facial expressions in reaction to Nemorino’s repeated rebuffing of her games is a classic moment of comedy within Robinson’s production. The aloof Nemorino; the maddened Adina. The tables have been turned. Robinson staged this and other scenes with just the right touch of direction to make it work together with the music. But these effects risk being overdone, and the absurdities, like Nemorino running an ice cream truck, which is nowhere in Donizetti’s script. The use of ice cream cones in various scenes at times may have contributed to the humor but mostly became very awkward, forcing the actors into ungraceful body movements which clashed with the movement of the music. Why?

Art or Entertainment?

At the a post-performance discussion after the dress-rehearsal, conductor Stephen Lord, director Robinson, Dr. DiChiera, Burak Bilgili (Dulcamara), Scott Ramsey (Nemorino, ), and Amanda Squitieri (Adina,) discussed their thoughts on the production and answered questions from the audience. A woman, native to Italy, who’d grown-up in a rural village similar to the opera’s intended setting, asked, “Why this need in the United States to change settings in order to make the story more relevant to your audience?” Robinson responded that he’d always found productions of this opera so “vague”, and wanted his audience to have a better connection to the characters, their circumstances, what they might be going through.
With the economic questions in mind here, the subject descended into the perceived need for opera to compete with television and movies for attendance. Competition? What competition? The singers were complemented for their acting skills, the new dimension in opera which ostensibly makes it more interesting than old days when opera singers mainly just sang (though I’m not sure how some of opera’s historic greats would take to Conductor Stephen Lord’s characterization of them as “dinosaurs who just sat there motionless.” They could probably muster a chuckle.) Perhaps there’s an urge to make things more “realistic”, more life-like, more like TV and film. Will the audience be entertained? Will they get bored?

Any good director will want to take his audience on a journey, will want them fully engaged mentally in the plot’s unfolding and not distracted by thoughts of whether they’ll have paid their taxes on time (or whether they’ll still have a job next month!) But the route to that state of full mental participation by the audience lies not along the pathway of sensory overload.

Classical Art superior to Hollywood or TV because it works upon one’s imagination! Shakespeare’s Chorus from Henry V asks us to forgive the inadequacy of the stage to represent faithfully in any sense-perceptual way the actual geography, the actual armies, the actual kingdoms of the play:

But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

The audience members participate in the opera by letting their minds generate internally what needn’t be portrayed directly. American statesman and economist, Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr., has stated that in Classical drama, the member in the audience, when experiencing a competent performance will be jolted back into the theater room with the curtain’s close on the final act, suddenly brought back from a place in their mind in which that drama had occurred, for them, on the stage of their imagination. It is almost as if they won’t recognize the actor for whom they are now applauding who had evoked the living image of the corresponding character within their mind. Oh, was that him? The role of the director is crucial in giving life to a competent production, but please, leave room for Donizetti on that stage. Leave room for the imagination. As Adina says to Nemorino: “You are good and modest. I do not think you so vain as that sergeant; and for that reason I speak to you plainly.” In art, it’s important not to over-do it.

When compared to the limited medium of TV and film (and in the extreme, to the degeneracy of My Space, Facebook, video games, and Twitter, which actually recruit people away from reality) the essential power of Art is plainly evident: the power to engage a human mind in a creative process. Not the more “realistic” perception (i.e. fantasy-escape) available through high definition, but in what is most real about our Universe: the universal principle of human creativity, the power of ideas.
As we near the close of an approximately four-decades long drift into the delusion of a post-industrial, services/information economy from what had been a functional agro-industrial economy, whose members’ standards of living had been driven forward through advancements in science and technology, we are struck with the paradox of our situation. The reciprocal relationship between classical culture and the production of the essentials of life can be understood thus: Classical literate culture provides the domain in which a human mind can develop most fully its innate power of creativity through exposure to irony and metaphor, that is, cognitive play. We have only to look at the proficiency in classical music of violinist Einstein to get the flavor of that connection. Creativity, introduced into the physical production process through newly developed, more advanced technologies and investments in basic economic infrastructure, transforms that production process to a higher state of physical productivity per capita and per square kilometer. The resulting margin of net profit to society (free energy not money) is the basis for increased consumption by those future generations, who, if we care about their grand children’s grand children’s (sic) generation, we would desire to develop this next generation into a citizenry of highly-cultured, classically-trained scientists and artists. We would understand the power in art which is essential to the survival of civilization.
Thus, when a nation faces the dilemma of subjecting Art to the budget axe, do not ask how soon the economic recovery is to be expected. Instead, know that a culture which had come to face such a dilemma had long ago allowed its moral foundations to rot, had lost interest in the cognitive play so essential to human progress, and had therefore lost something essential to a truthful understanding of what economics is all about.

Classical culture is not an elective economic purchase. It is the source of all economic value.
One question remains then. When a society in fact enters a breakdown in which art cannot be supported as it properly should, what becomes the role of the artist? It were the true test of our artists’ dedication to their mission, if in the face of serious economic decay, our opera companies persevere to serve as the moral guidon for a culture in need of discovering its essentially beautiful human nature. Though the patrons’ pearls be pawned for bread, and though the glitter and grandeur had been stripped from the theater’s walls, Art must remain to act on what may be its only available stage, the imagination, to serve as the organizing force for a society rediscovering some basic principles.


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