“Delicious, absolutely delicious.” exclaimed an enthusiastic friend of mine when she spotted me at the end of the bel canto opera we had just seen/heard. At almost the same second another friend informed me that she found the first act so tedious that she nodded off a number of times.
And you know – I agreed with both of them! I, too was bored by act one, but found much more enjoyment after the intermission. And not because the second act contains the famous, (by now clichéd to death by every tenor extant,) “Una furtiva lagrima.”
This aria, by the way, was performed to perfection by the American Matthew Polenzani who surprised me as a delightful Nemorino. (Quite a change from the uninspired performance he gave in last season’s La Traviata. But then, Polenzani hardly has to prove himself at the Met. He has sung 29 roles here in more than 250 performances.)
Vocally, across the board for this L’Elisir, there was nothing to complain about, and I fully appreciated the obvious attempt by the Texan Scenic Designer, Michael Yeargan, to present us with sets that resembled the charm of bucolic country paintings. Catherine Zuber, the British Costume Designer dressed the cast and lively chorus in an appropriately rustic yet spritely manner. Indeed, everything seemed calculated to please the eye.
Barlett Sher, the director, gave a persuasive explanation about his presenting the opera less as a farcical comedy, instead viewing it as a romance that has some serious undertones. The even-then-financial-class-system and Nemorino’s resultant ego problem is, after all, the basis of the conflict. Sher clarified the use of Adina’s black top hat, which had caused some criticism, as a foil for underscoring her authority when needed.
As usual, the world-class Met orchestra gave us a lustrous performance under the able baton of Maurizio Benini.
So why am I still disgruntled? It is the opera itself.
I have never understood why L’Elisir d’Amore has been such a triumph since its premiere in 1832. Between 1838 and 1848 it was the most frequently performed opera in Italy. And it is still in the repertory of most every important opera company around the world. Pavarotti, for instance, performed it at the Met 49 times.
How come, when in my estimation the first act is exceedingly boring – even though it has the seeds of unrequited (just not acknowledged) love, the magic of a love potion, (a dramatic foil that has been around since the ancient Greeks) and the easily discernable cast members of Commedia-del-Arte? Maybe it is the unmemorable music that tells the tale of the poor peasant Nemorino who almost loses Adina, a successful farm owner, to the intentions of Belcore, an overbearing military braggart.
The pauper Nemorino falls for the claim that a love potion, (actually a cheap Bordeaux,) peddled by the proverbial quack, Dr.Dulcamara, can persuade Adina to marry him. Despite all obstacles, the over-the-top-happy ending has the couple united and makes Nemorino a suddenly super-rich heir to boot. What could be better or more predictable!
Gaetano Donnizetti (1797-1848) the prolific composer of more than 60 operas, is said to have dashed this one off in just a few weeks. Evidently this was not too unusual because of the boilerplate structure of the standard bel canto opera. Felice Romani (1788-1865,) the most admired librettist at the time, is supposed to have adapted it from an earlier French version in just eight days, according to Cori Ellison’s wonderfully informative program notes for this opera.
But praise must indeed be heaped on the musical rendition of this HD performance, which by the way, is now transmitted live to 63 countries across the globe.
Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano, who is a super-diva if ever there was one, fully deserves that title. Although her voice has now grown almost too powerful for the coloratura demands here, she pulled it off as ever. She personifies the attractive singing/actress today’s opera audience demands. Deborah Voigt’s entre-act, totally relaxed interview of Netrebko and Polenzani showed why this pair, who have sung the parts together many times, do it so well.
Mariusz Kwiecien, the Polish baritone, polished off the military braggadocio, Belcore, in memorable fashion. But it was the Italian baritone, Ambrogio Maestri, the love-potion quack, who brought the house down. His lusty performance deserved it.
Happiness reigned all around when the performance ended without interruption because of possible harmful activity of our sun. The HD movie audience had been forewarned about this eventuality. So even the heavens wanted this L’Elisir to be a success.
Here is what some of your neighbors had to say about their L’Elisir experience:
Joan Furman of White Plains had never seen this opera before but was well prepared, because she has been attending a special course devoted expressly to some of the HD performances. Taught by Eric Jennings, it is part of the Continuing Education Program at WH High School. After L’Elisir, lectures will zero in on Otello, Aida and Un Ballo in Maschera. The advance knowledge enhanced her enjoyment a great deal, she said.
Zelda Damashek of White Plains decided that “the beginning was a bit plodding, but it picked up, and the singing was great.” This is her third year of coming to the HD’s, which she feels are truly popularizing this important art form. As a child she used to attend the Met in her grandparents’ box, but was “turned off “ by the so-often tragic endings. She is delighted that “there are comic operas like L’Elisir!”
P.S. In case people did not see it on a recent NY TIMES front page, the Met’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, announced at the opening of the HD transmission that James Levine will be returning to the Met this season. The announcement elicited a tremendous cheer.
Catch the Encore Performance of this opera at 6:30 PM at WP City Center or Regal NewRoc; Nov.7,2012