Homemade Elixir 

Opera Idaho takes on the Italian opera

In 1832, Gaetano Donizetti penned the entirety of L'Elisir d'Amore in a fortnight.

Almost 200 years later, the 140-minute, two-act opera known in English as Elixir of Love survives its creator as a collection of symbols in black and white. Its lines and dots and shapes are indecipherable to the masses who are not educated specially for the task. In spiral binding, meagerly housed between two laminated glossy covers, the soul of Donizetti's vision born in a flurry of creativity lives in only two dimensions.

That is, until it finds a stage, where the mysterious code of the written opera is escorted into the realm of physicality.

Last Saturday morning, in the studio space at Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, Opera Idaho began its final week of rehearsal for Donizetti's comic opera, the second and final performance of the company's season. At the request of stage director David Cox, 20 or so singers swiftly took the stage, waited for a cue and erupted into song. The story of a simple country bumpkin who falls in love with the darling of the town, Elixir of Love is classic romantic comedy with two soon-to-be-in-love stars, a rival love interest and a character who turns the tide.

"Everything you see that's not the music, I had something to do with," said Cox. At last weekend's rehearsal, Cox sat at a folding table in the center of the room stacked with notebooks and musical sheets and a copy of the opera. He is a singer himself and imagining him on stage isn't difficult. Even in suspenders adorned by a small button that reads, "Not a morning person doesn't even begin to cover it," Cox commands a room with a presence that must rival that of his stage persona. The son of a Baptist preacher, Cox describes himself as a "blue-collar singer" who stumbled into opera in his mid-20s. He similarly found his way into directing, falling into it when a friend asked him to direct Don Pasquale 15 years ago. With more than 40 singing roles and 20 directorial forays behind him, Cox said it's the creation of the overall product that makes directing worthwhile.

"Taking something from nothing, coming up with an idea and a way to present it, getting people together and working with them so that they're better at it than when they walked in, and then seeing the total picture up on stage from the house makes directing ultimately more satisfying," he said. "Not in the moment, but ultimately."

If Donizetti created the everlasting soul of Elixir, Cox is the architect of its embodiment. At least here in Boise.

Cox, who has himself sung in several productions of Elixir of Love in various roles and directed Opera Idaho in Barber of Seville in 2006 and La Boheme last fall, began the preliminary work on Elixir from his home in San Francisco. The process from page to stage is a long, slow crescendo culminating in only a single performance this Saturday.

Most directing work in opera today, Cox said, is first accomplished through long-distance correspondence until several weeks before the show, when he and the leads (who have also been preparing from a distance) converge for the start of rehearsals. Two weeks of studio time at Esther Simplot with only a piano as accompaniment prepare the cast for this week, when they move over to the Morrison Center and engage the Boise Philharmonic only days before showtime. When the curtain goes up, Cox's work is done.

"As the director, you have to say, 'It's done. Here take it; it's yours.' And then you sit back and say, 'This is so cool.'"

From there, it's all up to the performers. Baltimore-based tenor Rolando Sanz plays Nemorino, the town simpleton who's unfortunate enough to fall in love with Adina, the prettiest, richest girl in town.

"The comedy ensues, and he follows her around. They end up together at the end after various comical circumstances," said Sanz. "Classic opera."

The name of the town in which the eventual lovers reside? The City of Trees, of course. Not only is the show set in Boise, but behind the scenes as well, Elixir is very much a local effort. Local Rebecca Hoffman is responsible for all the costumes, and production manager Jennifer Wilhelmi designed the set and had it built here rather than bringing one in from out of town, as has been the case in recent years.

"Considering opera is such a huge, extravagant art form," said Sanz, "it's neat that it can really come down to the community here."

San Jose soprano Sandra Rubalcava makes her second Boise appearance as Adina (the first was 2004's Nosferatu), and her feelings about her character are slightly more ambiguous than those of her suitor.

"My favorite role is always the one I'm doing now, but in this one, she's so crazy. She is nuts," laughed Rubalcava. "You want to hate her. I know I hate her."

When she takes the stage, however, it's difficult to dislike Adina for her antics, given Rubalcava's talent. Set aside all knowledge of the plot, ignore the projected English supertitles and with eyes closed, Rubalcava's voice transports every ear, every piece of dust in a room into some transcendent state wherein such meager barriers as words in a foreign tongue bow down to the power wielded by the supremacy of the language of music. And when her suitors take the stage—not only Nemorino, but his uber-macho rival Belcore (played by baritone Gregory Gerbrandt)—each answers with a sound that simply escapes, seemingly without the slightest bit of effort.

President of Opera Idaho's board of directors, Marshall Garrett, very lovingly called the starring cast of Elixir "freaks of nature" for their abilities. Garrett himself has a minor, non-singing part in the show. He's also hosting bass-baritone Joseph Rawley, who sings the part of charismatic traveling salesman Dulcamara, who sells Nemorino a potion guaranteed to win Adina's love.

"I keep telling Joe that the more I'm around him, the more I'm envious of [his] abilities," said Garrett.

However, being an opera singer isn't high on many kids' lists of what to be when they grow up. And for some who do find themselves in the world of opera, like Cox and Rubalcava, it's something they fall into through a passion for singing.

"For me opera gets to your anima, it gets right in there," said Rubalcava, thumping her fist to her chest. "The music is so gorgeous, it's brilliant. And it's also challenging. It's interesting to see if they're going to make it; are they going to get that high note?"

She admitted she has moments when she's not sure she'll make it herself, but hopes any gaffes happen in front of a forgiving rehearsal audience rather than on stage the big night.

Sanz said that in his years as an operatic singer, he's had only one onstage blunder—when he wasn't on stage. At a performance in college, he missed a cue by several long minutes, leaving his soprano counterpart alone and without a response after her aria.

"I'll never do that again," assured the Yale Opera graduate. And don't worry, he added with a smile, he doesn't often leave the stage in Elixir, making for few opportunities to miss an entrance.

Sat., Mar. 8, 8 p.m. $10-$80. Morrison Center, OperaIdaho.org.

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