Joseph Rescigno will make his long-awaited return to the podium with the Arizona Opera this weekend conducting Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love." It is an encore 25 years in the making — his one and only Arizona turn was conducting "Carmen" in 1984 — and one that has the potential to create a footnote in the company's history.
Rescigno will use the same score his uncle, conductor Nicola Rescigno, used for the 1981 New York Metropolitan Opera PBS telecast with Luciano Pavarotti. Aside from that performance, the score has not been used, Rescigno said.
"It has these wonderful corrections," Rescigno said earlier this week during a break in rehearsals for this weekend's performances. "A lot of the opera is almost over-scored, with lots of brass and stuff, and he redid a lot of that."
Nicola Rescigno gave his nephew the score late last July when the younger conductor was visiting him in Italy. Days later, on Aug. 4, Nicola died; he was 92.
"He had this huge library with all these things. . . . I said I was doing 'Elixir of Love,' and he said, 'Oh, use the score that I did the telecast with Pavarotti,' " Rescigno recalled.
His uncle tweaked the score based largely on his research of Donizetti's original manuscripts in Italy.
"He tried to get the original manuscripts. He was doing this before the age of critical editions," Rescigno said. "He lightened a lot of the orchestration. There's all kinds of places where he only has one trombone playing instead of three, and he eliminates some heavy brass writing. But there are some missing parts of the second trumpet that he restored. He discovered that the score was missing a second trumpet spot in certain places."
Rescigno is conducting James Robinson's 2007 staging of "Elixir," which Robinson created in his final season as artistic director of Opera Colorado in Denver.
Donizetti wrote "Elixir" in 1832, setting it in 19th-century Italy. It's the story of rich landowner Adina wooed by the town bumpkin Nemorino and by Sgt. Belcore, who comes to town to recruit soldiers. The comedy centers on a love potion that Nemorino takes to win the heart of Adina, who is betrothed to Belcore.
Robinson sets his production in 1910s Anywhere, USA, putting the action in a town square during a harvest fest.
"By setting it in this time period, there was a real function to what Belcore was doing. It would make sense to have a recruiting officer come to town because World War I was brewing and that was the era of the 'I Want You' posters from Uncle Sam," Robinson said during a phone interview Monday from New York City. "I think this piece plays like a musical comedy, and there's something really fantastic about that. You can really see a direct line between this piece and American musicals."
Robinson, who became artistic director with Opera Theatre of St. Louis in October, has taken his production to Boston, Pittsburgh and San Francisco, where it was met with critical acclaim. The San Francisco Chronicle said it was beautifully "staged with a deft balance between romantic tenderness and physical comedy." After its Arizona run, the production will be mounted in Michigan, Robinson said.
"It's one of those operas where it works . . . better when you move it to a place and a time where people can identify with the characters and the situation in a more immediate fashion," Robinson said, drawing a line between his 1910s wartime setting and today's wartime environment. "I think a lot of times if it just plays straight, like right off the page — particularly with American audiences — the stakes just don't seem to be very high. There doesn't seem to be much sense of urgency, and it's hard to relate who these people are."
"It works very well. It's charming," Rescigno said of Robinson's production. "He respects the whole concept that humor happens from the situation. It's a story about a fellow who is madly in love and acts a little crazy, and some people do act crazy when they're madly in love. And he doesn't make Adina so mean and so bitchy that it's hard to have sympathy with her."
Rescigno said his uncle's score has only been performed twice — the 1981 Met production with Pavarotti and with the Dallas Opera, which his uncle founded and led for 33 years. Nicola Rescigno also founded the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
The "Elixir" score is among his uncle's library of 400 scores that Rescigno will inherit.
"I think he was the last of the great conductors who really knew bel canto style, and I'm glad I got to pick his brain," he said.
If you go
Gaetano Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love"
• Presented by: Arizona Opera.
• Conducted by: Joseph Rescigno.
• Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.
• When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
• Where: Tucson Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave.
• Tickets: $25-$100 through Arizona Opera, 293-4336; or www.ticketmaster.com
• Review: Online Sunday and in Monday's Tucson/Region section.
• Synopsis: A peasant, Nemorino, falls hopelessly in love with the wealthy landowner Adina, who wants nothing to do with him. Instead, she pledges her love to Sgt. Belcore, a recruiting officer and soldier who is a breath away from being shipped off to war.
Distraught, Nemorino buys a love potion — it's really cheap wine — from the traveling salesman Dr. Dulcamara, who promises Nemorino that in 24 hours, the potion will take effect and Adina will be his. Nemorino downs the drink in a gulp and gets tipsy, which he confuses for the potion beginning to work. He sings loudly and dances about, oblivious to Adina's growing attraction to him.
Belcore, meanwhile, is pressing Adina for a quick marriage. Nemorino, still emboldened by the booze, decides to hedge his bets that Adina will fall under the potion's spell and fall for him by buying another bottle of elixir. He has no money, so he enlists with Belcore and pays Dulcamara.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Nemorino, his uncle has died and left him his heir, which excites the villagers. They are rejoicing and praising Nemorino for his pending wealth, but he mistakes it for admiration brought on by the elixir. That emboldens him even more, despite the clock ticking on Adina's pending marriage.
After watching Nemorino basically ignore her, Adina falls helplessly in love with him and buys back his enlistment. She breaks off the marriage to Belcore, who takes it like a brave soldier, and she falls helplessly into Nemorino's arms. Another happy ending: Dulcamara the snake-oil salesman becomes so famous that he sells his entire stock of bogus elixir to the villagers and gets rich.