14 May 2009
L’elisir d’amore at Covent Garden
L’elisir d’amore is perhaps Donizetti’s silliest opera — but also one of his most charming.
Verdi Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House - a masked ball in every sense, where nothing is quite what it seems. On the surface, this new production appears quaint and undemanding. It uses painted flats, for example, pulled back and forth across, as in toy theatre. The scenes painted on them are vaguely generic, depicting neither Boston nor Stockholm, where the tale supposedly takes place. Instead, we focus on Verdi, and on theatre practices of the past. In other words, opera as the art of illusion, not an attempt to replicate reality. Take this production too literally and you'll miss the wit and intelligence behind it.
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This third revival of Laurent Pelly’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore needed a bit of a pep up to get moving but once it had been given a shot of ‘medicinal’ tincture things spiced up nicely.
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Maurice Greene (1696-1755) had a highly successful musical career. Organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a position to which he was elected when he was just 22 years-old, he later became organist of the Chapel Royal, Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge and, from 1735, Master of the King’s Music.
L’elisir d’amore is perhaps Donizetti’s silliest opera — but also one of his most charming.
Laurent Pelly’s 2006 staging, first seen at Covent Garden in 2007 and revived here by Daniel Dooner, certainly supplies much absurdity, capriciousness and inanity, but it is rather lacking in genuine warmth and tenderness. In this ‘busy’ staging, characters are entertaining but not fully engaging; we smile gently at their follies and witticisms, but they don’t truly touch our hearts. We don’t really care; and, it seems, neither do they. The humour is largely visual: indeed, on the opening night the largest laughs were raised by the manic terrier which intermittently whips across the stage, and by the between-scenes front cloth advertising Doctor Dulcamara’s entire range of miraculous potions and lotions - the clutter of cures for Constipazione and Impotenze recalling an email inbox, deluged by SPAM offering fake Viagra.
Striving for a realism that would put many a verismo production to shame, Pelly furnishes his stage with a relentless assemblage of period props — tractors, lorries and Vespas — to evoke rural, post-war Italy. The curtain rises on a precipitous mound of hay-bales. It’s true that this Nemorino — a foolish bumpkin — certainly has a mountain to climb if he’s to win the hand of Diana Damrau’s feisty, spoiled Adina. While the workers toil in the sun-drenched fields, the queen bee perches aloft, preening herself beneath her pink parasol, laughing disdainfully at tales of ‘real’, un-dying love of the kind that will later catch her unawares.
No-one could accuse Giuseppe Filianoti of lack of commitment: as Nemorino he, literally, throws himself into the part, hurling himself around the stage like a hyperactive child, tumbling and flailing in a hopeless effort to catch the eye of the indifferent Adina. When Dulcamara declares that he met a few fools in his time but none quite as dim as Nemorino we are inclined to nod in agreement. While this self-deprecating slapstick raised a few chuckles, it did not distract from Filianoti’s vocal weaknesses. His is a dark-toned tenor, but the upper range is strained and reedy, and his opening number was particularly uncomfortable. In the Act 1 finale he seemed completely adrift, musically and dramatically. Despite these problems, there were moments to admire. Filianoti’s diction is excellent, he uses the words well, and his performance did improve as he slowly warmed up. He certainly conveyed Nemorino’s ardency and sincerity in the Act 2 ‘Una furtiva lagrima’. Yet, it was rather an effort, and the simple elegance required to communicate the profound, ‘poetic’ sensibility to be found beneath the buffoon’s clownish exterior was lacking.
As Adina, the German soprano, Diana Damrau, commands the stage. Dressed in a seductively low-cut dress (costumes are by Chantal Thomas), she flirts and flaunts, incessantly prancing, posing and pouting. However, while she entirely lacks innocence and does not really earn our sympathy, she can be forgiven for these exaggerated excesses as she renders Donizetti’s lyrical melodies and capricious coloratura with delicious beauty and ease. Outraged by the attention that Nemorino’s new-found wealth garners from the other girls, Damrau’s fiery fioratura is flawless. And, her declaration of love - a stunning two-octave plunge sealing her promise to make him ‘as happy as I used to make you miserable’ - is the high-point of the evening.Simone Alaimo as Dulcamara and The Royal Opera Chorus [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
The Sicilian bass-baritone, Simone Alaimo, played Dulcamara as if this was his five-thousandth performance of the role … perhaps it was. His buffo gestures were rather tired; even the chorus, who excitedly anticipated his entrance, didn’t wait around to hear his sales pitch — leaving Alaimo addressing an empty stage. A sharp, red suit in Act 2 enlivened him somewhat; responding to Adina’s confident assertions that the power of her own physical attributes is more than a match for any elixir Dulcamara cares to offer, he demonstrated more energy and sparkle. But, Pelly seems to view the quack doctor less as a loveable rogue than as a greasy slime-ball. Like Anthony Michaels-Moore’s cock-sure Sergeant Belcore, he is presented as a cynical opportunist. In Belcore’s opening aria, despite standing aloft the hay-bales, a ‘king of the mountain’, Michaels-Moore struggled to project his baritone; he was a rather one-dimensional figure throughout, a charmless bully. The Japanese soprano, Eri Nakamura, supplied the evening’s one genuine moment of sweet, unaffected tenderness, as Giannetta.
Pelly’s direction of the chorus is confusing and over-emphatic. At times, they are uncompromisingly involved in the action, was in the opening scene when they taunt and torment Nemorino with an alarming aggression! Elsewhere they ignore the action entirely, and face forwards, immobile, to address the audience — a gesture which lacks subtlety, relevance and becomes increasingly irritating.A scene from L’elisir d’amore [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
Despite Pelly’s desire for realism, this production does not truly convey the dark side of the drama - the potential sadness, even tragedy, hiding behind the comic frills, or the cynical exposure of the true elixir of love: money. Fortunately, Bruno Campanella understands the aesthetics of bel canto, and he stylishly controlled the colour and pace of the performance from the pit.
So, in this visually catchy production there is lots to entertain and much to admire, but perhaps rather less to enchant.