L’Elisir d’Amore (Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera have set themselves an extremely high benchmark with the opening production of their 2012/13 ‘Live In HD’ cinema season, Bartlett Sher’s tremendous new staging of Gaetano Donizetti’s 1832 opera, ‘L’Elisir d’Amore’. One of the best loved, most accessible and most frequently performed operas in the repertoire, Donizetti’s two act, ‘L’Elisir d’Amore ‘, is a comic and technical tour de force for four, highly-skilled, bel canto singers, and luckily we are gifted with a quartet of some of the finest singers you could possibly assemble on the Met’s stage.

Known for his usually inventive stagings, Tony Award winner Sher’s new production is an insightful and very traditional affair, elminating the distracting, and frankly unnecessary devices apparent in other productions, and instead focusing predominantly on the performances, the music and the cleverly-crafted story. Sher intelligently explores under the vivacious, comic surface of the piece, unearthing a much more mature, compelling and psychological side to the opera. Though there is natural humour to be drawn from Felice Romani’s astute, comic text, Sher ensures that both the characters and the piece in general never become too caricatured, with the romantic and emotional tension of the central characters given principal focus. Sher’s direction, combined with the beautifully traditional and painterly work of set designer, Michael Yeargan; the authentic, rustic costume design of Catherine Zuber and the subtle and inventive lighting design of Jennifer Tipton make this a memorable and highly rewarding production of Donizetti’s great work.

The plot follows the lovesick, young peasant, Nemorino, who, desperate to win the heart of the beautiful, wealthy landowner, Adina, is continually tormented by both her indiference and the threat of his rival suitor, the dashing, self-assured, Sergeant Belcore. At the arrival of the traveling quack, Dr. Dulcamara, Nemorino is tricked into purchasing a bottle of cheap Bordeaux, disguised as Isolde’s magic potion – the titular ‘Elixir of Love’, and so unfolds a glorious tale of comic chicanery and drunken delusion.

Scheduled almost five years in advance, the Russian soprano, Anna Netrebko is the star attraction in this production and she delivers a wonderful performance as Adina, a role she has developed and mastered over the course of a decade, perfectly balancing Adina’s taunting, feisty personality with some gentle and very poignant moments. Netrebko’s voice has gained considerable depth and volume in recent years, and in what she claims is her final bel canto role, she proves almost too powerful for the part, though it is wonderful to hear Adina delivered with a much richer and fuller voice, than the light coloratura soprano that is usually seen in the role. There is a much darker quality to her voice now, that would certainly suit her move towards heavier repertoire, but she still delivers the beautifully executed, agile coloratura passages and glorious top notes she is reputed for.

Matthew Polenzani makes for an outstanding and endearing Nemorino, with his beautiful lyric tenor perfectly suited to vocal demands of the role. Though there is a depth and power to his tenor, there is still a youthful elegance that exudes from his vocals and he effectively depicts Nemorino’s journey from adolescent naivety and frustration to his developing sense of maturity and confidence, without the often tiring buffoonery of previous interpreters. He displays a strong understanding of the text and injects a great deal of emotion and passion into his performance, effortlessly delivering a masterful and show stopping rendition of one of the most famous of all tenor arias, the Act II, ‘Una furtiva lagrima’.

The Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien makes his return to the ‘Live In HD’ screenings, after starring in last season’s production of ‘Don Giovanni’, here taking up the role of the intimidating and conceited, Sergeant Belcore. Kwiecien cuts an imposing figure on the Met’s large stage, and his powerful, commanding stage presence, combined with his rich, yet lyrical baritone vocals, make this a very strong interpretation of the role.

Completing the strong, principal quartet, the Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri proves an absolute delight as the devious Dr. Dulcamara. Maestri could not be better suited for the role, with his naturally comic demeanour and his polished, powerful, yet unforced, bel canto vocals making this a joyous interpretation of the role. His entrance aria, the great, Act I, Scene II patter song, ‘Udite, udite, o rustici’ (‘Listen, listen, o peasants’) is a wonderful highlight of the piece and, throughout the opera, his masterful rhythmic technique and perfect delivery of the Italian text makes easy work of the numerous, challenging and rapid vocal passages he is faced with.

Conductor Maurizio Benini brings out a fresh and stylistic rendering of the score, driving the orchestra at a considerably quick pace and assuring that a high level of energy is fully maintained.

If I had one negative about the production, it would be that the chorus just looked too out of place and, on more than one occasion, their vocals sounded too jumbled and off note. There were quite a few times when I felt they remained static for too long, without any vocals to deliver, making me wonder what their actual motive for being there was. I also noticed that some individuals appeared unsure of both the lyrics and what exactly they were supposed to be doing, slightly spoiling the magic of the piece.

I do feel that, on the whole, the broadcast was slightly let down by some disappointing, and very strange camera decisions made by the ‘Live In HD’ broadcast team, led by a new production director. The camera operators seemed to have considerable difficulty maintaing focus throughout the screening and, frustratingly, were continually diverting the attention from key scenes and moments, zooming in close on individual singers during duets and focusing on irrelevant details, diminishing the overall power and the immersive quality of the piece.

Broadcast aside, this is a wonderful opening to the Met’s new 2012/13 season and it leaves the second production in their ‘Live In HD’ cinema series, Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Otello’ on October 27, a considerable amount of work to do in order to match the high quality and standard of this production.

Running time: 2 hrs. 42 minutes (approx.)

Photography: Ken Howard

For more information on the Met’s 2012/13 ‘Live In HD’ cinema series, please Click Here