Flórez, conductor elevate the Met’s silly and dated “Elisir”
With its slapstick antics and predictable gags, its kindergarten colors and intellectual cheapness, the Metropolitan Opera’s 1991 staging of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is a tawdry thing. John Copley’s production (now staged by Stephen Pickover), with sets and costumes by Beni Montresor, is due to be replaced in the 2012–13 season, and with any luck the new staging will play less to the gallery and more to the humanity and elegance at the heart of this 1832 melodramma giocoso.
In truth, more than just luck will be required, because the common culture has changed so drastically since Donizetti’s time. To us moderns, L’elisir seems little more than a goofy romantic comedy. But what Donizetti and his librettist Felice Romani crafted is a pastoral—arguably the brainiest of artistic genres, in which sophisticates in the guise of country folk ponder the finer points of philosophy and poetry.
L’elisir is funny not because Sergeant Belcore peers down Adina’s cleavage or Nemorino breaks into a Michael Jackson-style moonwalk, as played at the Met. It is sly and witty because it sends up the legends of Tristan and Isolde and Paris and Helen—because Belcore enters flaunting his literary pedigree (he is the miles gloriosus or “braggart soldier” of ancient comedy)—and because the bumpkin Nemorino (his name means “sylvan”) wanders into poetic and social situations that are over his head but wins a fortune and Adina’s heart thanks to happenstance and cheap wine, the decidedly un-magical potion peddled by Dr. Dulcamara.
Aspects of the Met’s Elisir were well executed. Ragged ensembles and who’s-in-charge-here tussles with singers early on boded ill for Donato Renzetti’s conducting, but he presided masterfully over one of the score’s finest moments: that heart-stopping swerve from levity to pathos in the Act I finale, when attention suddenly shifts from Adina’s flirtatious shenanigans to Nemorino’s heartbreak. Donizetti does something similar in Don Pasquale, and these moments should—and last night did—stun the audience and give a hard tug at their heartstrings.
As Nemorino, Juan Diego Flórez was too much the self-satisfied tenor and too little the naïf, but he compensated for his dramatic shortcomings with singing of consummate beauty. At his best, Flórez does things that no one else today can do. He caresses the words palpiti and sospiri in Una furtiva lagrima with the power of a poet or madrigalist; he sings of rivers flowing into the sea in prodigiously long, tapered phrases that mimic the love-charged landscapes they evoke.
Flórez’s scenes with the Dulcamara of Alessandro Corbelli were highlights of the performance. Here are artists who utter every word with gusto and eloquence; here are singers who know that vocalism is more than mere sound. Droll and knowing, Corbelli was the level-headed (indeed, conniving) hand that stirred the pot of amorous mayhem going on around him.
Diana Damrau’s bag of dramatic tricks seems to consist of twirling her skirt—and nothing more. Her lithe, tender singing of Prendi per me exemplified the strengths and weaknesses of her performance. On the one hand, she possesses a pearly timbre, spins dreamy pianissimi, and never fails to infuse her singing with emotional weight. On the other hand, her lax sense of rhythm and apparent disregard for consonants other than “r” make her singularly unsuited for Italian repertory, and the relatively low tessitura of Adina’s music does not play to her stratospheric strengths.
Mariusz Kwiecien as Belcore strutted well and brought musical and comic flair to his character’s patter in the Venti scudi duet with Nemorino. Layla Claire was a remarkably elegant, musicianly Giannetta. The chorus under Donald Palumbo sang well, Joshua Greene was a sensitive recitative accompanist, and the stage band under Gregory Buchalter coped gamely with the house’s tricky acoustics.
At various points in this staging of L’elisir, characters run around the stage waving the Italian flag. The tricolor, though, was not widely adopted until after Donizetti’s death, and it is hard to make a case for L’elisir as a political opera. Maybe the flags are a kind of signal to the audience, a way of saying “This is an Italian opera, nothing more than mindless fun.” Better luck next season, Donizetti and L’elisir.
L’Elisir d’Amore runs through March 31. 212-362-6000; http://www.