If I am going to continue my view of the current San Francisco Opera season as an undergraduate humanities seminar, then James Robinson's production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore must be spring break! This light-hearted pastoral riff on the tale of Tristan and Isolde preceded Wagner's more serious effort by about a quarter-century and is about as dialectically opposed to Wagner as one can imagine. The setting in the Napa Valley emphasized the distinction even further, the only dark clouds coming from the implicit suggestion that the newly-drafted soldiers we see are about the become cannon fodder for the First World War. However, those clouds never signify in the basic narrative, in which our rather simple hero (neither a Tristan nor a momma's-boy Albert Herring) longs for the town beauty, who would rather read about romance than experience it. The important twist in Felice Romani's libretto (and probably the source novel, Le Philtre, by Eugène Scribe) is that the love potion that gives Tristan and Isolde so much trouble is, in this case, recognized from the start as a fake, translating into the Napa setting as a typical item of fraudulent patent medicine. The joke is that, in spite of the con, it works, basically thanks to the logic of Ringo Starr in Help!: "It's all in the mind."
Like any good drama this opera is all about changes. So, no matter how absurd the story may be, it rises or falls over how well those changes are depicted and interact with each other. Thus, we have Nemorino, so smitten with Adina that he cannot do anything in front of her without making a fool of himself; and we have Adina making a show of flirting with Army sergeant Belcore for no reason other than to tease Nemorino. Enter Dulcamara with his potions, and in no time he has Nemorino pegged for a sucker. Nevertheless, the potion Nemorino buys does have an effect. It endows him with a confidence previously missing (not that different from the spiked punch that Albert Herring drinks); and Ramón Vargas knew exactly how to convince us of this change, which means that we could appreciate the change that Nemorino could then induce in Adina. That change, as performed by Inva Mula, was equally convincing, making it easy to enjoy the ride of these two opposites ultimately attracting each other.
Needless to say, the pacing of the changes was as important as the changes themselves; and Bruno Campanella had a perfect sense of using the music to move the action forward without being either too slow or too fast. This is a bit trickier than may seem at first blush. Donizetti, after all, had to contend with the shadow of Gioacchino Rossini, particularly in the form of his Barbiere di Siviglia, which preceded L'Elisir by about sixteen years. Rossini was a tough act to follow; and Donizetti did not follow it with half the imagination that Rossini had summoned, almost as if he was placing all of his bets on "Una furtiva lagrima" stopping the show (which, of course, if did). The score needed a conductor like Campanella, who could glide us through Donizetti's weaknesses without our being so aware of them that we would lose the levity of the story. Thus, while L'Elisir is slighter than Donizetti's subsequent Lucia di Lammermoor, the production of the former ultimately made for a more satisfying experience than last spring's presentation of the latter.