L'Elisir d'amore: When Bad Productions Happen to Good Singers

Camarena and Schultz, photo @ Marty Sohl

On paper, the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore should have been a wonderful night at the opera. The cast should have been perfect for their parts, and L'elisir d'amore is one of opera's sunniest, most surefire comedies. You don't really need to work for this opera to work. It's a sweet romantic comedy and the dim country bumpkin Nemorino is one of opera's most lovable characters.

Belcore is actually terrifying, photo @ Marty Sohl
Instead, the performance was dragged down by Bartlett Sher's misguided production. Sher's production is misleading -- the sets and costumes make it look extremely traditional. But the actual dramaturgy is bizarre. Sher seems to think this is actually an opera about toxic masculinity. Belcore is a stuffed shirt army sergeant. He's a well-known opera buffa type. In Sher's production Belcore is actually a terrifying presence. His army brutalizes the women of the village, and they slap, beat and kick Nemorino. The madcap finale to Act One becomes uncomfortable to watch.

Sher also changes the character of Nemorino. Felice Romani's libretto takes pains to emphasize how uneducated and naive Nemorino is. When he enlists in the army he has to sign with a mark as he's illiterate. Sher makes Nemorino a sort of Werther Jr. He's first seen onstage scribbling in his poetry book. In this production, he's so well-read and intelligent that it defies belief that he'd be such an easy mark for Dr. Dulcamara's "love potion." Traditionally tenors have added their own schtick to drunken Nemorino. Rolando Villazon jugged, Roberto Alagna did handstands, Juan Diego Florez moonwalked. Sher just has Nemorino lurching about onstage, so drunk that he swings a bayonet at the crowd. Nemorino loses his charm like this, and becomes a stereotypical hotheaded tenor.

Camarena, photo @ Marty Sohl
I eagerly looked forward to Javier Camarena's Nemorino. He's become  the bel canto tenor of choice at the Met and for obvious reasons -- his voice has the required agility, his timbre is sweet and round, and his upper register is remarkably free and open. But Nemorino is not a perfect fit for his voice -- there's very few chances for him to show off the high notes that are his specialty, and his middle can sound breathy and occasionally unsteady. He is one of those tenors who probably finds the 9 high C's (or in his case 18 because he encores his renditions) of "Ah mes amis" less challenging than "Una furtiva lagrima." What helps him is his remarkable warmth onstage -- he comes onstage and smiles and we're on his side. He almost made Sher's conception of the character work.

 

Golda Schultz (Adina) has a lovely, silvery soprano. She can trill beautifully. It's a size too small for a barn like the Met -- you can hear her, but the voice doesn't have much impact. She did have nice stage chemistry with Camarena. I wish she had a little more sass -- her Adina was very much a good girl. 

Maestri, photo @ Marty Sohl
Davide Luciano (Belcore) is another pleasant voice that also is a size too small for the Met. But mostly, he was defeated by Sher's stage directions, which make Belcore into a genuinely menacing figure instead of a buffoon. Ambroglio Maestri (Dulcamara) benefited from being the one character Sher did not alter significantly (although Dulcamara is also an arms smuggler in Sher's vision). Maestri has a rich, booming voice, but was actually disappointing in the rapid patter of "Udite, udite," where his voice lost resonance. Patter seems to be a lost art. Conductor Michele Gamba was fast -- the evening ended 15 minutes earlier than it was expected to end.

Because of the storybook sets and colorful costumes seem to please audiences, I don't think the Met will be in a hurry to replace this production. They need to though -- this production actively works against the charm of the opera. The elixir is suppose to make people fall in love. The elixir in this production just makes everyone a mean drunk.

Comments

  1. l completely agree with this review, and was relieved to read this writer and l agreed completely —except that l found Ambrogio Maestri perfect and wonderful, with no complaints about ANYTHING in his work, just utter joy ..
    But I would fire Bart Sher, and never look at his face again, he is appalling :/ .. he utterly destroyed the character of Belcore, and the soldiers, brutalizing Nemorino, and the girls, etc. And why the guns, you non-person?
    Get rid of this uneducated-in-opera director, send him back to Broadway, and perhaps import the perfect Vienna production ..

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