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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
L’Elisir d’amore, Comic opera in two acts.
Libretto by Felice Romani based on Eugene Scribe’s play ‘Le Philtre’.
First performed at the Teatro della Canobbiana, Milan, on 12 May 1832
Adina, Kathleen Battle (sop); Nemorino, Luciano Pavarotti (ten); Sergeant Belcore, Juan Pons (bar); Doctor Dulcamara, Enzo Dara (bass); Gianetta, Korliss Uecker (sop)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/James Levine
Production, John Copley
Set and costume design, Beni Montresor
Lighting design, Gil Wechsler
Recitative accompanist, Dennis Giauque
Video Director, Brian Large
Recorded November 1991
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DVD VIDEO 000440 073 4021 GH [128:00]

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After the success of Anna Bolena, premiered at La Scala on December 28th 1830, Donizetti’s position as one of Italy’s leading opera composers alongside Rossini and Bellini was assured. However, like his compatriots, he was to discover that such success did not guarantee that the works to follow would be similarly acclaimed whatever their musical merits. Between the premiere of Anna Bolena and that of L’Elisir d’Amore in May 1832, Donizetti composed five operas none of which was successful at the time, one not being staged until 1839! Frustrated by the censors in Naples, who always wanted happy endings, the composer broke his contract there, freeing himself to accept more frequent commissions elsewhere. He was approached to write an opera for the Canobbiana theatre in Milan when the contracted composer withdrew. The great, if vain and irascible, poet Romani produced a libretto in a week and Donizetti composed the music in little over two. It was an overwhelming success and received an unprecedented 31 performances. L’Elisir d’Amore is more opera buffa than comic opera but the style of the melodic music superbly conveys the conflicting emotions of the participants. The work has always had a place in the repertoire both in Italy and other major operatic centres.

The story of L’Elisir d’Amore concerns the illiterate, rather gauche, country boy Nemorino (tenor) who loves Adina (sop), a wealthy neighbour, who spurns his offers of love. She sings to her friends of the love potion that bound Tristan and Isolde. Hearing her, Nemorino dreams of obtaining such a potion. A lively march heralds the arrival of sergeant Belcore (bar) and his platoon. He quickly impresses Adina and proposes marriage whilst Nemorino tries to convince her of the sincerity of his love. With a fanfare Dulcamara (buffa bass), a quack doctor arrives, selling a ‘cure-all’ potion. In the cavatina Udite, udite, o rustici he extols the virtues of his potion (Ch. 12). Dulcamara convinces Nemorino that his potion will bring Adina to love him and the naïve boy buys a bottle with what money he has. In reality the potion is nothing more than red wine. Nemorino keeps sipping it and soon becomes more confident if slightly tipsy. He feigns indifference to Adina, which nettles her, and she promises to marry Belcore (trio Ch 18). To purchase more of Dulcamara’s potion Nemorino, having no more money, has to sign to join Belcore’s troupe. He does so with a large X. When Adina discovers from Dulcamara what Nemorino has done to buy the potion, and why, she relents and decides to win him by her eyes and smile. Nemorino notices a tear in her eye and sings the famous romanza Una furtive lagrima (Ch. 33). Adina tells him of her love and all ends well with Belcore reflecting that there will always be girls in the next village.

The Met’s staging takes the story at its fairy tale value. The sets and costumes are in period and the scene changes are swift, facilitated by flown additions to a basic tiered stage and steps. The costumes are lavish and sets colourful. These complement the overall fun and gaiety of the music. Dr Dulcamara arrives in a resplendent coach drawn by mock horses whose articulated legs move! John Copley’s direction of the cast is equally felicitous. I particularly liked the way he positions and uses the chorus who have a major part in the opera. With the principals he has more of a problem, as they are not all even moderate actors. Juan Pons’ Belcore is particularly wooden whilst Pavarotti’s idea of acting is the odd raised eyebrow on a blank face. This lack of expression, together with his size and tapestry jerkin, makes his portrayal more of a country bumpkin than yokel and Adina’s change of heart more improbable. In compensation we have Pavarotti’s well-known vocal virtues in this role including his two studio recordings (Decca 1973 and DG 1989). His open-toned vocal production, clear diction and graceful phrasing are evident from Nemorino’s opening cavatina Quanto e bella (Ch. 4) to the glorious quartet finale of principals and chorus (Ch. 37). As might be expected his rendition of Una furtiva lagrima (Ch. 33) brings the house down. In reality there is not as much sap in his voice as there was at his peak in the 1970s. All the same, at the time of this performance there were few tenors around who could match him for tonal beauty and style. Juan Pons has a fine baritone voice which, like his acting, lacks much variation or expression. Donizetti’s music gives Belcore every opportunity to swagger or vocally seduce; Pons ignores them and cannot even follow Pavarotti’s expressiveness in Venti scudi (Ch. 29) whilst his manner of putting a military hat on the tenor makes them both look rather ridiculous. Fortunately, in addition to the idiomatic conducting of James Levine and committed and vibrant singing of the chorus, the other two principal singers are among the best actors on the operatic stage. If neither Kathleen Battle as Adina nor Enzo Dara as Doctor Dulcamara are perfect vocally, when they are on the stage, fortunately most of the time in arias and ensembles, the performance becomes wholly enjoyable as a dramatic entity. Although my ideal Adina would have a little more body and colour in her tone, Kathleen Battle’s coloratura and vocal expression are like her acted portrayal, completely convincing. Her physical vitality and variety of facial expression and body language are ideal. It says much for Enzo Dara’s portrayal of Dulcamara that his histrionic skills surpass those of Kathleen Battle. The Rossini and Donizetti buffa of his generation, his acted portrayal of the duplicitous Doctor is perfection from the moment he steps out of his resplendent carriage and launches into Udite, udite, o rustici (Chs.11-12) to his second, rather cruel, conning of the plausible Nemorino. Only a touch of dryness in his tone stops me awarding his portrayal the very highest accolade.

Some productions in Europe have updated the action and put a more utilitarian, even political, perspective on the plot of this delightful rustic opera. The Met, as always, takes a more traditional view and plays it as the composer intended. As I have noted the work is more opera buffa than simple comic opera in that it has a cruel bite at its core as well as a happy ending. The Stanford University website listing of Donizetti’s operas describes it as such, whilst the accompanying booklet describes it as ‘Melodramma’ in two acts. Whatever, this Met production, well caught by Brian Large the highly experienced video director, catches the essence of the work and staging as presented by the theatre. The colourful sets and opulent costumes of this production are a perfect complement to Donizetti’s melodic music. Recommended to all lovers of traditional productions.

Robert J Farr

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