Laurent Pelly’s production had been revived by Daniel Dooner, the results in Chantal Thomas’s designs looked handsome and it was all charmingly entertaining without being heartless. Pelly and Thomas had chosen to set the opera in a small Italian farming town in the 1950’s. Wheat and straw bales were a big feature of the set, with a wheat-field as part of the backdrop and piles of straw bales used extensively in large stacks as the location for much of the action. The other significant visual effect was the use of transport. The chorus moved around on bicycles, vespas and mopeds, Dulcamara arrived in a huge truck and Nemorino appeared driving a tractor (whilst drunk) towards the end of act 2.
Neither the set nor the production really pushed the 1950’s setting too far, which meant that the piece worked very well. Donizetti’s opera is about a small town farming community and Pelly’s lovely detailed observation ensured that we were drawn into the doings of this particular one. The chorus were very much part of the action, and helped create the mis-en-scene for the soloists. The entire performance had the feeling of a group enterprise, an ensemble piece despite the presence of star names; it was all the better for it.
Alagna can no longer sing Nemorino with the grace and beauty of tone that he once could. But his determination to sing Nemorino whilst also singing Radames and Enee is rather admirable and has the feel of an earlier age when these roles were often taken by singers with larger voices. Of course, all this would be as naught if Alagna could not still sing the role. Granted, his voice was at times slightly louder than ideal, but he negotiated all the passagework deftly, if not ideally neatly. His voice did not always quite behave as he wanted, a couple of high notes were compromised, but he still produced some lovely tone and his account of Una furtiva lagrima was still a thing of beauty on its own terms. If you accepted that stylistically he was channelling Puccini, then there was a great deal to admire.
But it was Alagna as an actor, as a stage creature, who made the performance. From the outset he was completely charming, with a winning manner and an extreme physicality to the performance (to the extent of even losing his clothes) which could have turned into a stunt but in fact became part of his delightful characterisation of Nemorino. I have to admit that I went into the performance a little dubious, but came away entranced. Alagna’s performance was very much team work, he worked with his other performers and was clearly having a whale of a time.
It helped, of course, that he had such a strong team around him. Alexandra Kurzak has sung in the production before and remains a complete delight in this repertoire. Her capabilities in singing elaborate bel canto roles is astounding, but she is not just a technical delight she uses her technical abilities to create a real character. Her Adina was wonderfully pert and flirtatious, but even from the outset it was obvious that she felt something for Nemorino, and Kurzak allowed us to see this and developed it.
There were plenty of vocal delights on the way as well, but everything combined superbly in her account of her act 2 aria Prendi, per me sei libero where her feeling for Nemorino is displayed, combined with technical finesse.
Dulcamara was played by Ambrogio Maestri with rotund good humour. He was more the loveable rogue than the edgy character in some versions of this opera and I understand that the satire was more pointed when Pelly’s production was new. Maestri is very adept at using his bulk to devastating comic effect, but his account of the role was also very finely sung. It was buffo, but with a very clear musical line and very good it was too. Maestri also had a number of delightful tricks, such as interpolating little whistling noises when singing the comic duet with Adina during the wedding scene in act 2. But you felt that Maestri was less interesting in comic business for its own sake, and more intent on using it to create character.
Fabio Capitanucci (last seen here as Chorebe in Les Troyens) was finely fatuous Belcore, but one with a creditable swagger who would clearly be of interest to the ladies. Much of the humour came from the fact that his troops consisted of just two recruits, two mismatched boys one tall one small, both in ill-fitting suits. The way that, at the end he smoothly transferred his affections to Giannetta (Susana Gaspar) made it clear that Belcore was a survivor.
Gaspar (currently one of the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists), was announced as suffering from a cold, but there were thankfully no audible effects and she made a charming Gianetta.
Bruno Campanella conducted; he got off to a slow start, and there were one or two hiccups in ensemble between pit and stage in the more complex choruses. But as Campanella got into the swing of things, there was much to enjoy in his performance. I have to confess, that I do rather prefer this opera in a smaller opera house, but he managed to get a nicely sparkling performance from the orchestra.
This was a joyous evening in the theatre, just what L’elisir d’amore should be.