Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 January - 4 February 2004
Issue No. 675
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Return of the potion

Three into six might be unnecessarily complicated, finds Amal Choucri Catta

L'Elisir d'Amore, Gaetano Donizetti; dir. Abdullah Saad; Cairo Opera Orchestra, cond. Ivan Filev; Opera Choir, dir. Aldo Magnato and Cairo Opera Ballet. Main Hall, Cairo Opera House, 22-27 January, 8pm

Premiered at Cairo Opera's Main Hall in February 2000 and repeated in May 2001, Donizetti's two-act opera L'Elisir d'Amore was reprieved last week for six nights by Cairo Opera Company, directed by Abdallah Saad, Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Ivan Filev, the opera choir directed by Aldo Magnato, with dances by the Opera Ballet Company, choreographed by Sahar Helmy and Erminia Kamel.

In spite of last Thursday's rain and sand-storms, opening night managed a rather full house, with an audience enthusiastically applauding the star of the show, young soprano Amira Selim. Performances in 2000 opened with Dalia Farouk, those in 2001 with Mona Rafla.

Selim's ease, poise andelegance, combined with a pure, limpid, voice, were appreciated by the audience. She has sung Barbarina in the Marriage of Figaro, Rosina in Barber of Seville, the title role in Lakme and Gilda in Rigoletto. Her interpretation of Adina, the rich, witty and beautiful heroine who appears in the Elixir's first scene reading the story of Tristan and Isolde and the love potion that inflamed their passion beyond any power of restraint, was no disappointment. Seated among the village labourers and peasants, with their noisy children, begging her to read to them, Adina sings the captivating story while Nemorino, standing alone and feeling rejected, sings his lovely cavatina Quanto e bella, quanto e cara.

Delightfully performed by tenor Georges Wanis, for the third time, Nemorino is, in reality, the star of the show, a poor young peasant, crazily in love with the great lady who does not seem to care for him. She laughs at his lack of courage, his timidity and, feeling comfortable in her coquetry, ridicules him and the love he hesitates to show. Wanis' voice rang out beautifully: he is among the few reliable singers who are, at the same time, excellent performers, though he may not be a perfect comedian.

Wanis studied singing at Cairo Conservatoire and continued his studies at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris with professor Caroline Dumas. There he obtained his diplome de concertiste in 1999. He won several prizes in competitions in Egypt and abroad and regularly performs abroad as well as in Cairo. His repertoire includes roles in several Italian and French operas, as well as in Lehar's Merry Widow.

On the third night the audience applauded an extraordinary young comedian, tenor Hisham El-Guindy, who has only recently embarked on his singing career: he enrolled at Cairo Conservatoire in 1995 and studied singing with Sobhi Bedeir. In the framework of the Academy of Art performances he has sung roles from several operas in concert. His clear voice, though promising, requires work. Given time, though, he will make good his promise as a tenor.

His interpretation of Nemorino, the poor, forlorn peasant, was convincing. He is a natural comedian, ingenious, candid and deliciously refreshing. Dalia Farouk was cast as Adina: she is a fragile young lady with a lovely voice that has warmth and beauty, though she would be well advised to double her training while checking her high notes,particularly when going from low to high pitch.

The third Adina programmed came on the second night: soprano Mona Rafla. She has an excellent voice and good presence on stage. She should be moving on to more demanding roles. Her performance as Leila in Bizet's three-act opera Les pecheurs de perles, and as Mimi in La Boheme, suited her more at this stage in her career. Her Nemorino was tenor Tamer Tewfik: his presence showed clearly that a good voice does not a good comedian make.

Here one should ask whether the two casts would have suffiuced for this production rather than the three we were offered. After all the opera was scheduled for only six nights, which would have given each cast the opportunity to perform three times.

The opera takes place in enchanting rural surroundings, with Adina making Nemorino quite unhappy and the choir joining in. In scene II we meet Sergeant Belcore who arrives with his soldiers. He is a charming bully who doesn't hesitate to court Adina, asking for her hand in marriage and adding more pain to Nemorino's bitter disappointment. We had three sergeants: on the first and third night a baritone with an exciting, strong voice, Mustafa Mohamed; on the second and fifth night Hatem El-Guindy, a beginner with an interesting voice, and on the fourth and sixth night, Elhamy Amin, an excellent performer who could be better if he wanted to.

Adina, however, decides she wants to think it over and, when left alone with Nemorino scolds him, telling him he had better look after his ailing uncle instead of mooning over her. That is when Doctor Dulcamara, the travelling salesman, a charming charlatan, makes a pompous entry on his elaborate cart pulled by a timid white donkey. Many among the audience expected the poor animal to start braying, but it just stood there, patiently waiting for Dulcamara to sell his potion to the attentive crowd.

He is a witty, vivacious wizard in his long, wide robe and high, white-feathered head-dress, singing his extraordinary basso aria. The sagacious Dottore is really selling cheap red wine, describing it as an elixir, a cure for any kind of ailment, a love-potion, as the one mentioned in Tristan's tale. Poor Nemorino quickly buys a bottle with his last coin while, in an enchanting duet, Dulcamara advises him on its usage. The entire village finally buys the wondrous elixir while Dulcamara hopes to leave before anyone discovers the fraud. Reda El- Wakil, bass-baritone, sang Dulcamara every night. He is a regular performer in France and other European countries and is rapidly rising to stardom. He was, as we have come to expect, perfect.

Nemorino, having drunk the wine, is in a strange mood: Adina finds him drunk and he plays at ignoring her. To punish him she decides to marry Belcore the very next day. The second act opens on the pre- nuptial feast at a local tavern, where Dulcamara is guest of honour and musicians play their instruments on stage. Nemorino is desperate, the potion does not seem to work and he asks the Dottore for another bottle. He has no money so he doesn't get his bottle and decides, instead, to join the army, thus obtaining the bonus destined to all volunteers. Sergeant Belcore signs him up, enabling him to buy more elixir.

Night has come and Giannetta, Adina's friend, gathers the peasant girls in the square to tell them Nemorino's uncle has died leaving the young man a fortune. When he arrives, carrying an immense bottle of elixir, the girls rush to him, trying to fulfill his every wish. Unaware of his new wealth Nemorino believes the elixir has finally taken effect, enjoying every minute of his sudden success. Adina, who has postponed her wedding to Belcore, is furious at Nemorino's behaviour towards her: she sheds a tear while he sings the famous aria Una furtiva lagrima. In the end, though, all is well. The lovers get married, Belcore and his soldiers depart and Dulcamara leaves on his cart while everyone waves goodbye to him and to his white donkey. He is overjoyed, having sold all his bottles of elixir.

Though Giannetta has a small part the three sopranos performing -- Jala El-Hadidi, Jehane El-Nasser and Sarah Enany -- were uniformly in good voice. The sets, costumes and stage props had all been designed by Italian Vera Bertinetti. The opera was directed by Abdalla Saad: the stage, at times, seemed a trifle overcrowdeed with unnecessary movement being at times distracting. At other times it was inexplicably empty, particularly during solos and duets when the spotlights appeared not to work as intended. As for the music, it was wonderfully interpreted by the opera orchestra under Ivan Filev's genial baton. The choir's frequent presence on stage enhanced the entire show, adding volume and colour to the performance which was, at times, quite funny.

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