Once in awhile, and too rarely, life mirrors fiction and when it does the results can leave an impression destined to be ineluctably indelible. That was my thought when Mademoiselle MG emerged from her dressing room in a gorgeous beaded dress so perfectly fitted that I'm sure my face said something else entirely, which I won't reveal here. A lark became an adventure and off we went to attend the opening night of LA Opera and its production of Donizetti's L'Elisir D'Amore that held its promise in the casting.

Last year's opening, a Hollywood-director drenched weekend featuring Woody Allen, William Friedkin and David Cronenberg productions, flitted through my mind in intervals, as it marked the beginning of a downward spiral which took months to be free of. As Maria and I hit the promenade of the Music Center I could tell this was going to be a significantly less auspicious opening than last year's, though I couldn't decipher whether it was economic circumstances or the lack of star-power which determined the more subdued atmosphere. It certainly wasn't the heat, because while it was LA-in-September hot, it wasn't the scorching heat of the previous year. I retreated into an inner reverie as I watched Maria absorb the impact of being envied by women and desired by men as we walked about drinking wine before the show.

L'Elisir featured a cast high on sex appeal- the gorgeous Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze was making her American debut this evening among two handsome Italians new to LA and the return of the widely-desired Nathan Gunn. One really couldn't ask for more. Despite a production that added dark and heavy elements where none were needed, during the second act the cast took off once they were freed of the cumbersome set design and allowed to be set loose on a staged open field.

During the first act Nino reminded me of Maria Callas. That's not necessarily a compliment, as I've never been part of that cult, though Nino did have a distinct vocal quality similar to that of the ultimate diva and it was the first time I've ever had that connotation while listening to someone. Those in attendance now have the inevitable bragging rights to say they were there, as the night is likely to be remembered as the the beginning of Nino Machaidze's conquest of America, though the seduction didn't really begin until the second act.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The rest of the cast was solid, with an especially great performance by Giuseppe Filianoti as Nemorino. Those who bought tickets hoping to see Rolando Villazon in the role couldn't have been too disappointed in his replacement. Filianoti is a true Italian tenor, and if his voice takes on a deeper hue as he matures he might well end up the Corelli for our time. Giorgio Caoduro stepped in at the last minute and did an admirable turn as the wily Dr. Dulcamara, by turns comedic and cavalier. Nathan Gunn was only a moderately successful Belcore, all the more puzzling because if anyone in the opera world could be assumed to easily pull off this role it should be opera's chief stud baritone. Valerie Vinzant's Giannetta also didn't have the light one may have expected, but it would take a lot to cut through the wattage generated by this Adina and Nemorino. However, I'll admit to being influenced by the superb SFO production of this opera last season, which was perfect in every detail, thus making comparisons inevitable and difficult.

It took Nino a while to hit her stride- perhaps it was opening night nerves, perhaps it was the inappropriately dark staging of the first act that conspired against this most effervescent of bel canto operas, but when the stage opened up during the second act the audience was able to hear and see what this woman could do- and she delivered "Prendi, per mi sei libero" with total mastery.

Filianoti, who was excellent in SF Opera's Lucia last year, was a Nemorino who didn't come across as a bumpkin, but rather as a man who is really hopelessly in love with Adina. When I saw Ramon Vargas in this role last year, it was a redemption from his lackluster years of coasting at the Met. Vargas was terrific, though more of the bumpkin- Filianoti sang and acted the role like Vargas might have in his hungrier, pre-Met days. That's a high compliment if you didn't see Vargas circa 1999. Filianoti's "una furtiva lagrima" was simply gorgeous and he owned the cavernous Dorothy Chandler by singing with emotion and pure tone. After this performance, either of these singers is worth seeing in any bel canto opera- together, they created an unexpected delight.

The staging, a revival first seen in LA in the 90's didn't do the cast any favors. A dark barn with high arches dominated the first act and didn't disappear until well into the second, undercutting the heart of the opera. Yes, there's always a dark side to comedy, and yes, there are darker elements lurking in Donizetti's music hinting at the sadness of love rejected or misplaced, but this opera isn't going to make that case with the first half of this production.

Better to open it up, onto a clear field under a full moon and when that happens, this is a potent brew. It starts to look like Millet's Gleaners come to life and once there, it becomes something special. I can only imagine it will get tastier as the run goes along. LA Opera has a number of must-see productions this year, especially the rest of Achim Freyers's Ring and The Stigmatized. Add this one to the list because of Nino.

After the performance Maria and I took a cab to dine outdoors at Cafe Pinot, home to excellent food, delicious Manhattans, generous service, a lovely setting and the most expensive vegetarian entree you can ever imagine.

From there, it was time to roam low and we headed to La Cita for dancing. I was initially dismayed by the DJ, but as the night wore on and the bar took on a decidedly different vibe, the place became a serious good time and the music followed suit. Eventually, two women's roller derby teams showed up and took the place over, transforming it into an estrogen-fueled hothouse of Sapphic desire. Maria was pulled onto the stage with little if any coercion by a bevy of heavily tattooed hot Latinas in tight black t-shirts and tighter jeans and from that point on I was simply a pleased observer of a scene I don't think I'll ever forget, regardless of the copious amount of bourbon consumed that evening.

The evening ended with brunch at Bottega Louie, where our waiter Rob, doing his best Keanu Reeves impersonation, proceeded to tell us his name three times without once asking us what we wanted. Thankfully Jamie, a professional waiter who wasn't on drugs, stepped in to save the day, and the we were served a most pleasant meal.

And then it was time to return. So we did. She to her town, and me to mine. Just like in the movies.