Though a comic opera about love potions and con men, Gaetano Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love" has an element of autobiography: Like the main character in his 1832 work, the composer was spared from military service after a wealthy businesswoman bought him an exemption.
Ten years later, Donizetti would score his first international hit with "Anna Bolena," but he would never forget Marianna Pezzoli-Grattaroli, "the worthy woman" who bought him out of his conscription.
And neither should operagoers. Freed from serving in the Imperial Austrian Army, Donizetti went on to become a leading composer of the bel canto style, writing beloved works like "Lucia di Lammermoor" and "The Elixir of Love" at a breakneck speed. It's the latter that Virginia Opera brings to town this week at the Dominion Arts Center.
Hastily written in six weeks, "Elixir" tells the story of a poor peasant named Nemorino who is love with Adina, a disinterested young landowner. To woo her, Nemorino purchases a love potion from Dr. Dulcamara, a traveling charlatan doctor. As Nemorino shows a newfound boost of confidence, Adina is suddenly intrigued, and announces she will wed another to make Nemorino jealous.
As Nemorino believes he's under the potion's spell, the surrounding townspeople learn that his rich uncle has died and left him a fortune.
"All the women find out about it, and they come running to me," says Carlos Enrique Santelli, who plays Nemorino in Virginia Opera's production. "It makes Adina realize that she's actually been in love with me this whole time."
"I guess you could say it's a 19th century rom-com that fits perfectly into a modern-day world," says conductor Adam Turner, Virginia Opera's artistic director. "It's such a charming story."
Noting the opera's bel canto — Italian for "beautiful singing" — style, Turner says the music perfectly fits the light, comic proceedings.
"The music is bubbly; it's full of comedy and wit and sparkles with a lot of character," Turner says. "The focus is really on the beauty of the voice. There's lots of acrobatics and vocal pyrotechnics in this music."
With "Elixir's" most famous tune, "Una furtiva lagrima," the opera momentarily shifts into more dramatic territory.
"It's always a tenor greatest-hits aria. It's my favorite moment to sing," Santelli says. "The comedy kind of goes away, and it become very serious for a moment."
Turner says that Santelli's winning of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions last year is evidence that his star is on the rise. By the time of the competition, Turner had already hired him for his Virginia Opera role after seeing him perform at the Santa Fe Opera.
"His career is on track," Turner says. "He'll be singing all over the world because of that competition."
Turner also has high praise for Cecilia Violetta López, who portrays Adina. López has been named by Opera News magazine as one of the 25 Rising Stars of the opera world.
"She's fabulous," Turner says. "She's a master in that style of singing, and I'm so delighted to have her join us again."
For her part, López says she's enjoying the difficult nature of playing Adina.
"It's a challenging role musically, because there's a lot of Olympian vocal hurdles," López says. "Her music is just all over the place."
In its focus on mortal peasants, Matthew Burns, who plays Dr. Dulcamara, says the show has an accessibility not found in many operas.
"A lot of opera stories can be convoluted and about nobility, gods and goddesses," he says. "This one's about everyday people. It's a love story. Everyone loves a love story."
Kyle Lang, the opera's director, says "Elixir" hopes to cast its spell on operagoers and newcomers alike.
"People should expect to have a good time," he says. "It's a really wonderful piece for people who aren't really opera fans."
Virginia Opera's "The Elixir of Love" plays Feb. 22 and 24 at the Dominion Arts Center, 600 E. Grace St. For information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-673-7282.