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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797–1848)
L’Elisir d’amore (1832)

Ileana Cotrubas (soprano) – Adina; Placido Domingo (tenor) – Nemorino; Sir Geraint Evans (baritone) – Dulcamara; Ingvar Wixell (baritone) – Belcore; Lillian Watson (soprano) – Giannetta;
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/John Pritchard
rec. 1977, EMI Studios, London, England
BMG-SONY CLASSICAL S2K 96458 [70:30 + 53:58]

"The style of this score is lively, and brilliant. The shading from buffo to seria takes place with surprising graduations and the emotions are handled with musical passion ... The orchestration is always brilliant and appropriate to the situation; it reveals a great master at work, accompanying a vocal line now lively, now brilliant, now impassioned. To praise the composer lavishly would be unfair to the opera; his work does not need exaggerated compliments."

No, these words are not mine; they were written by the Italian critic Francesco Pezzi in "La Gazzetta Privilegiata di Milano" after the première of L’Elisir d’amore at the Teatro della Canobbiana, Milan, on 12 May 1832. The composer himself was a bit embarrassed and thought that La Gazzetta "writes too many wonderful things about my L’Elisir, too many, believe me ... too many!" I would endorse every syllable of what Pezzi wrote, but Donizetti probably wasn’t as yet used to such superlatives. He was 34 and had already written forty operas, but his real break-through came only two years before L’Elisir with Anna Bolena. There followed a great number of other operas, including masterpieces like Lucia di Lammermoor and Don Pasquale, but not even those two have quite the fresh-as-dew approach as this rustic little tale. It seems that every melodic idea was borne out of the specific situation, just flowing from his pen and catching the characters spot-on. There is nothing calculated here – or so it seems. Yes, Francesco Pezzi was right and time has shown that he has continued to be so. Besides the Mozart comedies, a couple of Rossini operas, Don Pasquale and Verdi’s Falstaff very little in this genre remains in the standard repertoire.

L’Elisir d’amore has been fairly covered on record. Cetra recorded it with Noni, Valletti and Bruscantini 55 years ago, Decca did it in the mid-fifties with Güden, Di Stefano and Corena (an old favourite of mine), EMI had a set with the young Freni, Gedda and Cappecchi. The partnership of Bonynge, Sutherland and Pavarotti produced a fine set around 1970, then there was the present CBS recording. DG have recently reissued a set from the eighties with Barbara Bonney in one of her earliest recordings, Gösta Winbergh and Rolando Panerai. Pavarotti re-recorded it on DG with Battle and Enzo Dara. There was an Erato recording that I haven’t heard and which at the moment seems to have been deleted, with Devia, Alagna and Bruno Pratico. Finally the Decca set with Gheorghiu, Alagna (again) and Simone Alaimo, which also, surprisingly, seems to have disappeared. There are a few others as well and most of them have good things to offer. On balance I would still give my vote to the present recording, which I bought in the original LP version and have derived a lot of pleasure from. Returning to it now in this new transfer was like a reunion with a very good old friend and in fact I could find very little to carp at.

Based on a highly successful Covent Garden production it was recorded in studio but with such liveliness and enthusiasm that it very often feels like a live recording. One reason might be that the chorus contributes with laughter, applause and sundry crowd noises whenever they get an opportunity, which among certain critics is strongly disliked. Here it feels in tune with the performance and probably in line with the stage production, which I unfortunately never saw. Another important factor is John Pritchard. He leads the performance with lightness and elegance and a fearful drive, when appropriate. The first act finale literally fizzes with life and the whole opera is so imbued with high spirits that one forgets that it is, to be honest, a fairly plain story. With the chorus and orchestra greatly enjoying themselves and a cast that live their parts this is a recording to treasure.

Lillian Watson sings Giannetta’s little part with her customary elegance and bright tones. Ingvar Wixell in one of his best recordings, is an ebullient Belcore. Like many other great singers he was even better when also seen, but here his stage presence is strongly felt without the visual impression. He caresses and cajoles in his entrance aria and sings with fine legato, his quick vibrato so characteristic. Sir Geraint Evans was of course one of the great buffo and character singers during the sixties and seventies. His Figaro and Falstaff are rightly famous and Dulcamara was a part well suited to him. Ideally he should also have been seen as well as heard, but even as a sonic experience his entrance aria is something to cherish. It is true that his voice had lost some of its bloom, being rather dry and with more than a hint of a beat on sustained notes, but his way with the text, every consonant crystal clear, and his vocal inflexions, makes this a very vivid portrait. The larger-than-life Fernando Corena on the old Decca, more sonorous and textually even more pointed, has long been a favourite but Evans runs him close.

I know that the voice of Ileana Cotrubas, sharp, perky and with a slightly smoky character, is not to all listeners’ taste. However I have always liked her singing and to me she is an ideal Adina. Her entrance aria, about the cruel Isolde who gave Tristan that love potion, and which is the literary background to this opera, is charmingly sung. In the duet with Nemorino she glitters enticingly at Per guarir di tal pazzia (CD 1 track 9). Her second act duet with Dulcamara is also a charmer (CD 2 track 2).

Placido Domingo sings Nemorino and he does it exquisitely in his most honeyed voice. This he can fine down, but not always enough. He can’t quite hide that at this stage of his career he was already contemplating Otello. Still this great singer never does anything unmusical and he strews his gold on every phrase. In the duet with Adina (CD 1 tracks 8 & 9) he lightens the voice admirably and his first meeting with Dulcamara is a tour de force, even though he can’t wholly erase the memory of Di Stefano on the old Decca set. Domingo was the one member of the cast who didn’t sing at Covent Garden. That may account for the fact his voice coveys less of a sense of integration than the others. If I am not mistaken Carreras was the tenor at the Royal Opera House but for contractual reasons he couldn’t record the part for CBS.

The sound was always realistic. It has a certain outdoor feeling which can also be heard on the old LPs. The sound on this CD transfer further enhances the experience of a great performance. No texts are supplied but on CD 2 one can get access to the libretto in four languages when inserted in the computer’s CD-ROM Drive. I tried and got parts of the first page of the libretto but could not get any further. Maybe I wasn’t technically clever enough but it was comforting to read on the sleeve "This CD Extra may not work in all computers". Not in mine, obviously. For me it didn’t matter much since I have the old LP booklet with large print and a good essay by Stelios Galatopoulos, from which I culled Francesco Pezzo’s words with which I started the review.

This is still my preferred L’Elisir d’amore on CD and it can be safely recommended to newcomers and old-timers alike. Whichever category you belong to you should have a recording of this delightful opera – why not this one?

Göran Forsling

 

 



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