SAN DIEGO — In the heyday of San Diego Opera's most adventuresome programming, when Tito Capobianco was more eager to be reviewed in The New York Times than to balance the books, the flamboyant former general director revived a sequence of obscure 19th-Century operas.
While this meant that local opera buffs could join that privileged minority who had seen, for example, Verdi's early opera buffa , "King for a Day," they also missed out on many of the staples of the repertory.
Ian Campbell, the incumbent impresario, is redressing one such lacuna with the first San Diego Opera production of Donizetti's "L'elisir d'amore" ("The Elixir of Love"), which opens Saturday at the Civic Theatre. Along with Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," Donizetti's pastoral gem is the classic bel canto comic opera. But according to Lou Galterio, the production's stage director, it is no quaint museum piece.
"The opera's balance between the artificiality of the style and its true humanity--which is universal--is absolutely perfect," observed Galterio. "Into the story you inject the blustering sergeant and the hilarious charlatan of a doctor, but at the core of it is this wonderful love affair--a very human piece."
As director of opera production for New York's Manhattan School of Music, Galterio has built a reputation for staging contemporary opera. He has also directed numerous American premieres, such as Nino Rota's "The Italian Straw Hat" for Santa Fe Opera and Prokofiev's "Maddalena" for Opera Theatre of St. Louis. But he was not willing to agree that staging 20th-Century opera was more rewarding than doing traditional repertory.
"It's difficult to say more rewarding because I love great singing. So in the 19th-Century operatic repertoire, I love all the vocal splendor. In contemporary opera there is a different kind of gratification. It's more from the total piece--the composer's overall feeling. Sometimes I wish I could have both," said the gregarious, voluble Galterio.
He was critical, however, of those directors who attempt to impose a chic concept onto traditional operas such as "L'elisir."
"It's insane to try to impose tricky concepts on a piece that won't sustain them. With bel canto opera, the problem today is that most directors don't accept the style itself. They resist it, so when you have a soprano who has yards of coloratura to sing, they give her salads to toss and things to do because they don't understand that virtuosity in itself is the ultimate end.
"We don't ask a prima ballerina to justify 32 fouettes in 'Swan Lake', but we ask the soprano to justify yards of coloratura in a bel canto aria. It's an ego battle. You can't fight the composers--they'll win every time."
For the San Diego "L'elisir" production, Galterio again finds himself working with lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, who made his local debut this summer lighting Moliere's "School for Wives" at the La Jolla Playhouse.
This is the third time the duo has worked on Donizetti's "L'elisir" together. Their last Donizetti collaboration occurred in 1982 in St. Louis, the year Kaczorowski became Opera Theatre of St. Louis' resident designer. While their personalities are divergent--Kaczorowski is quiet and soft-spoken--they have in common the fact that neither began his career in opera.
"I started in New York in the dance world, where I was resident designer at a place called Dance Theatre Workshop," said Kaczorowski. "I did two years of lighting modern dance companies." But he never saw himself as an opera buff.
"It was always in the family. My mother was a big opera fan, but I couldn't stand it. I would plug my ears when she played it. I wasn't converted until I started lighting for Santa Fe Opera," he said.
A former stage actor, Galterio admitted that lighting was his blind spot. "Of the various elements, it's the one that mystifies me the most. It is the most abstract, so it's important for me to have a lighting designer I've already established a dialogue with," said Galterio. "I usually express feelings that I have about a scene and allow the designer to be the hands and the eyes of what's in my head."
The 31-year-old Kaczorowski admitted that he has come to be more assertive in making directors agree with his concepts. "I find myself sticking to my guns. It's important not to be just a facile designer, to come up with solutions that are easy, but are not necessarily conceptually right or visually arresting.
"Ultimately," he said, with a deferential nod to Galterio, "the director is the final word."
San Diego's "L'elisir d'amore," which will run through Nov. 8, features in the two lead roles Hungarian tenor Denes Gulyas in his local debut and Australian soprano Glenys Fowles. American conductor Willie Anthony Waters, artistic director of the Greater Miami Opera, will conduct the San Diego Opera Orchestra. The work will be sung in Italian with Opera Text translations projected overhead.