Cabell shines in Minnesota Opera's 'Elixir'

Baritone Andrew Wilkowske and soprano Nicole Cabell were among the stars in Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love" at the Minnesota Opera last week.

The great British writer Oscar Wilde once said of the novelist Henry James that he wrote fiction "like it was a painful duty."

Some opera singers are that way on stage. They don't appear to enjoy being out there, as if it's a painful duty. They're ill at ease with the acting, would rather sing in recital or be anywhere else, or maybe they're just going through the motions of career choices made long ago.

You can tell the difference when a singer genuinely loves being there. They're radiant, and you can feel it no matter whether you're in the front row or in the rafters. They seem to flourish when the lights turn toward them and the maestro cues them.

Nicole Cabell is that kind of singer. The Chicago-based lyric soprano was Adina in the Minnesota Opera's production of Donizetti's "L'elisir d'amore" last week and she appeared to enjoy every lustrous moment of it, as did the audience.

Cabell made her company debut in the bel canto classic, which hasn't been seen at the Ordway in St. Paul since the theater's opening season in 1986, and she was incandescent, full of energy and sass. With a cast of strong male voices around her, led by tenor Leonardo Capalbo as the love-struck Nemorino, Cabell was the center of attention as much for her bright voice and precise technique as her stage charm.


The production, the third in the Minnesota Opera's 2014-15 season, opened Jan. 24 and wrapped up with a matinee Sunday. On March 7, the company presents the world premiere of Kevin Puts' "The Manchurian Candidate," a major event in the American opera world. Puts won the Pulitzer Prize for music for his last collaboration, "Silent Night," with the Minnesota company.

"The Elixir of Love" is a light, date-night comedy that hasn't lost its luster since Donizetti wrote it in about six weeks in 1834. The libretto by one of the great Italian writers, Felice Romani, has moments of sharp wit and pathos as well as hilarious bits that never get old. The show also has one of the great tenor arias, inserted with unerring theatrical sense by the composer, and extraordinary ensemble and choral writing.

Cabell, who won a BBC competition called Singer of the World in 2005, was Violetta in "La traviata" last year with the San Francisco Opera and Mimi in "La boheme" with the Opera National de Paris in November. As Adina, a young, independent woman who also happens to be beautiful and rich, she conveys both nobility and a tender, vulnerable side, from the opening cavatina "Della crudele Isotta" to the moment in Act Two where she finally acknowledges her affection for Nemorino.

Capalbo, an American tenor also making his company debut, was ideally cast as the lovesick pup who'll do anything to win Adina's affection, including join the army and spend his last dime on a quack doctor's potion. Though he acted a bit too wan and wimpy at times on opening night, his "Una furtiva lacrima" was the showstopper it's meant to be, deeply ardent and believable. With baritone Andrew Wilkowske as the quack Dr. Dulcamara, Capalbo excelled in hilarious comic moments such as the duet "Obbligato, ah si! obbligato!"

Wilkowske could make a career out of playing the Oz-like snake-oil salesman Dulcamara, and baritone David Pershall was excellent as the rakish sergeant, Belcore. Shannon Prickett , who was a standout in three company productions last year, made the most of her moments as Giannetta, who at one point aspires to win Nemorino's affection.

Stage director Helena Binder , who crafted two of the company's most memorable shows in recent years, "Tales of Hoffmann" in 2006 and "Italian Girl in Algiers" in 2007, recast this staging from rustic Italy of about 1834 to the years just before World War I, though you could hardly tell. In fact, this "Elixir" could have used a bolder formula for scenery and costumes. The orchestra, led by Leonardo Vordoni, also seemed strangely muted and restrained at times, as if the show wasn't quite ready to go on opening night.

The Ordway was an opera hotspot this weekend, with Rochester native Shelley Mihm competing in the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions with other regional singers Saturday afternoon and the last two performances of "Elixir" Saturday night and Sunday.

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