After the success of Anna Bolena
in 1830, Donizetti’s position as one of Italy’s leading opera composers was assured. However, like his compatriots Rossini and Bellini, he was to discover that such success and approbation did not guarantee that the works to follow would be similarly acclaimed whatever their manifest 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 always wanting happy endings, the composer broke his contract, 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 undependable poet, Romani, produced a libretto in a week; Donizetti composed the music in a 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 (soprano), a wealthy neighbour, who spurns his offers of love. There is no pastoral countryside in this production. It is set among what look like suburban apartment blocks: shops on the ground floor with habitations above, accessed by an open stairway. Adina seems to work or run the local bar-cum-coffee shop whilst Nemorino sells magazines from a stall. Costumes for the ladies are patterned cotton, often flowered. Adina seems to work, or run, the local bar-cum-coffee shop whilst Nemorino sells magazines from a stall. As he watches her reading a magazine from his stall, he sings Quanto e bella,
extolling her beauty (Ch.4). She sings to her friends of the love potion that bound Tristan and Isolde. Hearing her, Nemorino dreams of obtaining such a potion (Ch.5). A lively march heralds the arrival of Sergeant Belcore and his platoon (Ch.6), via the auditorium. Belcore quickly impresses Adina and proposes marriage whilst Nemorino tries to convince her of the sincerity of his love. With a fanfare Doctor Dulcamara (buffa bass), a quack spiv arrives, selling a cure-all potion
(Ch.10). In the cavatina Udite, udite, o rustici
he extols the virtues of his elixir (Ch.11) and convinces Nemorino that his potion will bring Adina to love him. 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 albeit slightly tipsy. He feigns indifference to Adina, which nettles her, and she promises to marry Belcore in six days time (Ch.15). Meanwhile, Belcore learns, by period telephone, not a mobile in sight thank goodness, that he and his troop have to leave that day and that he and Adina must marry that evening. Having no further money to purchase more of Dulcamara’s elixir, in desperation Nemorino signs to join Belcore’s troop and, convinced of its effects, spends his bounty in the hope of a miracle. The local girls learn that Nemorino has come into an inheritance and fawn over him (Ch.27). He is even more convinced it is the effect of Dulcamara’s potion. Meanwhile, Adina discovers from Dulcamara what Nemorino has done to buy the potion, and, realising why, she relents, buys out his contract and decides to win him by her eyes and smile (Ch.28). Nemorino notices a tear in her eye and sings the famous romanza Una furtiva lagrima
(Ch.29). Adina tells him of her love and all ends well with Belcore reflecting that there will always be girls in the next village (Ch.32). That said, in this productionm he is not as insouciant as the libretto implies and he threatens Nemorino with his pistol. Meanwhile Dulcamara ascribes all the happenings to his elixir in the patter aria Ei correge ogni difetto
- it corrects every defect - (Ch.33).
The Metropolitan Opera’s very naturalistic staging takes the story at its fairy-tale face 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. They complement the overall fun and gaiety of the music. Dr Dulcamara arrives in a resplendent coach drawn by mock horses whose articulated legs move (see review
)! The set and costumes in this production are updated to around the late 1930s. Belcore and his troop, looking like Franco fascisti, are recognisable as soldiers. Jean-Luc Chaignaud, tall and handsome and enhanced by his uniform with a pistol on his hip, is less convincing vocally with a lack of variety of tone, characterisation and with the odd raw patch. Dulcamara arrives via the sidecar attached to a motorcycle, pushed by a couple of helpers. It is hardly a Harley, but posh and polished nonetheless even if Bruno Pratico’s capacious figure hardly fits in or on it. Pratico lacks nothing for variety of vocal expression and is well able to milk every nuance of the words for maximum effect. However, his tone is now rather dry and lacking the fruity mellifluousness that Geraint Evans and Enzo Dara brought to the role in an earlier generation.
The two lovers are accomplished actors. Rolando Villazon’s hyper-activity and India rubber face can distort the simplicity of the work. His opening Quanto e bella
is well phrased and modulated with the voice well and evenly supported. His rendition of Una furtiva lagrima
is likewise expressive without exaggeration and finishes with a quiet appealing legato; it brings the house down. Villazon, after standing for some time, is forced out of role and ultimately to reprise the aria; not quite as well the second time round (Ch.30). Vocal and facial exaggeration, and excessive forte singing, are obvious along the way, particularly as Nemorino becomes increasingly agitated at Adina’s wedding feast. Many will rightly hazard that this propensity, alongside the assumption of heavyweight roles, have taken their toll on what was once a fine lyric tenor voice and have in turn contributed to his extensive breaks from singing. As I write, in May 2010, and on the basis of recent performances in London, there are articles by renowned critics doubting if his voice will ever be as it was in its prime. It may be this 2005 performance was at the back end of a golden period for him.
Maria Bayo, Adina, is a local favourite. She is a true lyric soprano rather than the leggiero often cast in the role. She approaches the higher tessitura with some care albeit with a secure outcome. To her committed acting skills she adds expressive and well-characterised singing. She is perhaps at her best as Adina returns the contract to Nemorino and exhorts him to stay (Ch.30) showing that furtive tear in her eye.
Villazon’s reprise of his Romanza does not account for the whole of the timing, which is somewhat longer than rivals. It is a whole show that is recorded. During the curtains, Pratico slides off from the stage (Ch.34) and with the conductor remaining in the pit, re-appears at the back of the auditorium singing his last aria as he moves down among the audience (Ch.35) distributing miniature bottles of his potent elixir - Spanish brandy I guess. Villazon tries to get the audience clapping along. It is all appreciated by the audience and gives the show some added zing. It is the kind of night one would be pleased to catch without being the ultimate in singing or staging. If, as with this issue, 16:9 configuration is your preference a more traditional production by Otto Schenk from Vienna in 2006, featuring Villazon alongside Netrebko as Adina, is also available from Virgin. That featuring the other dream couple of the day, Alagna and Gheorghiu, also sets the work in the 1930s. It is available in a production by Brian Dunlop from Lyon and recorded in 2002 conducted by Evelino Pido (Decca).
In this production Daniele Callegari supports his singers and does Donizetti justice. The chorus are first rate and the video director unobtrusive even if I could have done without one or two close-ups of Villazon’s facial contortions. There is one bit of fuzzy focus (Ch.28).
As with these bargain priced Virgin DVDs the supportive leaflet leaves a lot to be desired. There are plenty of credits and a few coloured photographs but no synopsis or chapter listing. Hence I have provided both in my plot summary above. I would have thought these to be a minimum requirement!Robert J. Farr
With not a farm to be seen another updating of Donizetti’s pastoral idyll. An enjoyable evening in the theatre.… see Full Review