Don Pasquale and L'elisir d'amore: A Tale of Two Tenors

Grigolo and Kurzak, photo @ Marty Sohl
On March 15 and 16th the Metropolitan Opera performed two beloved Donizetti comedies that starred tenors with remarkable vocal instruments. Both Vittorio Grigolo (Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore) and Javier Camarena (Ernesto in Don Pasquale) have the kind of voices most singers dream of: the warm, sunny, timbres with bright pinging upper registers. They open their mouths, and the audience loves the sound of their voices. However, the similarities between the two tenors begin and end there.

The Met's current production of L'elisir d'amore has handsome old fashioned painted backdrops by Michael Yeargan and "traditional" costumes by Catherine Zuber but is a remarkably dour, humorless take on Donizetti's timeless comedy. Bartlett Sher apparently decided that Nemorino was not the lovable, illiterate sap that was described so vividly in Felice Romani's libretto, but a brooding poet and a mean drunk. Belcore's army is actually violent and scary -- they physically shove and manhandle Nemorino and sexually harass the girls. I mean, it's a comedy. The army shouldn't be giving off an ISIS vibe.

Enrique Mazzola led a lively and coordinated account of the score from the pit. Alessandro Corbelli (Dulcamara) is a living treasure -- an old fashioned opera buffa baritone who is completely idiomatic in both the patter arias and in pulling off the tried and true schtick. Ying Fang was lovely as Giannetta. But otherwise the performance made you scratch your head.  Adam Plachetka (Belcore) has a handsome voice but the directions in this opera make Belcore and his army, as I said, more ISIS than soldiers looking to "have fun off-duty time." Aleksandra Kurzak (Adina) is an engaging actress and a musical singer. However, the upper register of her voice seems to have receded to the point where any sustained tones come out as white, off-pitch squeaks.

Vittorio Grigolo as Nemorino gave a performance equal parts endearing, bewildering and narcissistic. You can certainly admire the energy he brings to the otherwise joyless production -- in the first act he played with some members of the children's chorus and juggled an orange. But his entire performance seemed directed towards an imaginary member of the audience sitting in the first row (let's call her "Vittoria"). "Quanta è bella" was sung towards "Vittoria" instead of Adina. Throughout the performance he gazed adoringly at "Vittoria." He undressed her with his eyes. Even in the love duet that ends the opera when he finally kissed onstage Adina his gaze was directed at "Vittoria", and when the blocking called for him to fall onto the ground in a tight embrace with Adina he waved at "Vittoria." During the curtain calls he reached for his heart and flung it at "Vittoria." Lucky woman.

Grigolo's musical interpretation was also bizarre. On paper his voice is a perfect fit for Nemorino. But he has a bumpy, erratic sense of musical line. He tends to lunge at notes randomly with almost no sense of legato -- at times his phrasing resembled someone who hasn't yet mastered a language and keeps putting the em-PHA-sis on the wrong sy-LLA-ble. "Una furtiva lagrima" was sung almost completely as a vocal display. There was no sense of Nemorino's inner life. At the end Vittorio gazed adoringly at "Vittoria" then when the applause died down lifted his head upwards towards the heavens to garner more applause. Grigolo is a gifted singer but this role brought out his most self-indulgent tendencies.

In contrast, the next night's performance of Don Pasquale was one of the HAPPIEST performances I've ever attended. The audience at the end of the night refused to leave the auditorium until the cast came out for bow after bow. Everyone was in better vocal shape than opening night, particularly Eleanora Buratto, who not only displayed a freer upper register and more articulated coloratura, but a real comic spirit that was missing in her debut night.

Camarena, photo @Eva Chien
Despite the fine singing of the entire cast the night belonged to Javier Camarena, who was never anything but musical, always interacted with his colleagues onstage in a playful, organic way, yet had the audience screaming and stomping. He again interpolated a D-flat at the end of "Povero Ernesto" and held the note throughout the orchestral finale. The audience carried on until conductor Maurizio Benini picked up the baton again for an encore. Camarena's bis was decorated with graceful ornamentation and of course capped with another blazing D-flat that was if anything even more secure than his first one. He also ended the finale of Act Two with a huge D-natural. This is Javier Camarena's third encore at the Met. And obviously he is a skilled musician and singer who has probably has a healthy sense of self-worth. But you never felt that the performance was an egotistical display. Instead he conveyed joy of singing and performing throughout the evening and that energy crossed the footlights. He also was an effective actor and a considerate colleague. He stomped his foot repeatedly (and adorably) at Ambrogio Maestri's Pasquale, the serenade and duet of Act Three were lovely, and he was really singing to his Norina.

I teach in an inner city school where a common saying among the students is "Miss you're doing too much." In many Met productions I've attended this year I often got that feeling. Meticulously rehearsed and promoted performances that were also dull and uninspired, like the Lulu that was more art exhibit than opera. Don Pasquale proved that the formula for a successful performance is really just great singing and engaged performers. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it?

Last night's curtain call


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