Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797–1848)
L’Elisir d’amore (1832)
Maria Bayo (soprano) – Adina; Rolando Villazon (tenor) – Nemorino; Jean-Luc Chaignaud (baritone) – Belcore; Bruno Praticň (bass) – Dulcamara; Cristina Obregón (soprano) – Giannetta; José Lois Pérez (mute) – Moretto
Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu/Daniele Callegari
rec. live, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, June 2005
Stage director: Mario Gas; Sets and Costumes: Marcelo Grande, Lighting design: Quico Gutiérrez; TV director: Xavi Bové
Sound Format: LPCM Stereo; DTS 5.1 Surround; Picture format: 16:9
VIRGIN CLASSICS 2672779 [152:00]

Few comic operas of the 19th century have aged with such pleasure as L’Elisir d’amore. Although it is supposed to take place in a small Italian (originally Basque) village in the late 18th century it is possible to adjust to any period. This production from Barcelona has it firmly established in what looks like the inter-war years and in the square of a less rural place - even though the opening chorus sings of harvest – but there is no sign of reaping implements. Nemorino runs a little shop where he sells magazines and cheap literature and that’s where Adina finds the story of Tristan and Isolde (maybe in the Illustrated Classics series) of which she relates the essence in her aria, the one that inspires Nemorino to spend his last sixpence on Dulcamara’s fake elixir. Dulcamara arrives by a side-car equipped motorbike driven by a uniformed chap with a cap that is uncannily reminiscent of Nazi headgear. But there are no other references of political or ideological import so this is probably just a coincidence.

The stage picture throughout the performance is an open space – a square with a lamppost in the middle. This lamppost is important as the hub around which much of the action rotates. Behind the square is a building with two storeys having staircases on both sides. The production oozes with life and energy and one can savour plenty of amusing details in the massed scenes, which are numerous, as well as in the central confrontations. I have to say that the more it progressed the more involved I became. I ended up being totally enchanted by the whole production. It was a long time since I became so enthralled by an opera performance on DVD.

The director has played an all-important part in this success. Generally speaking L’Elisir d’amore in a way plays itself but Mario Gas has definitely chiselled out very specific and tangible characters. It’s a pleasure to watch the many minute details in gestures and movements, also in the crowd scenes where the members of the chorus are not only anonymous citizens but clearly identifiable individuals.

The soloists are also impressively responsive to the director’s desiderata, down to Cristina Obregón’s lively Giannetta, who here stands out as a central character, much more than can be expected from what little she has to sing. Jean-Luc Chaignaud does what he can to make Belcore something more than a stock character. Vocally he has something of Renato Bruson’s timbre but not the smoothness and elegance. On the other hand this is not what one expects from a rather crude soldier like Belcore. He certainly has the looks for him.

Dulcamara is no doubt one of the meatiest roles for a good buffo and Bruno Praticň is certainly one of the most experienced and idiomatic of today’s singing-actors in this particular genre. His voice is not among the most ingratiating but we don’t expect that from a Dulcamara. What he has in abundance is stage presence, expressivity and the capacity to sing a beautiful mezzo forte when the situation requires. He is great in his long entrance solo and also in the scenes with Nemorino and Adina. When the performance is over there is a reprise of his solo in the finale, which he sings in the auditorium, handing out miniature bottles with his elixir of love to love-thirsty members of the audience.

The main reason for acquiring this DVD is the two central characters, Nemorino and Adina, and they are terrific. Maria Bayo has for quite some time been one of my favourite sopranos. She is a fascinating actor and vocally was on top form when this performance was recorded five years ago. Her crystalline but warm voice is truly enchanting and few singers inflect their phrases with so much feeling. This is a singer who never strives for just beautiful tone but first and foremost the appropriate nuances the role requires. I can’t remember a more perfect Adina, bar Ileana Cotrubas on the famous CBS recording from the late 1970s.

Likewise Rolando Villazon has nothing to fear from comparison with almost any great tenor who ever took on this grateful role. Not only is he the possessor of a voice that must rank among the most beautiful ever, Domingo-like but leaner, and with an ability and willingness to find all the nuances in the music. He is also a superb actor and he makes a heartfelt portrait of the simpleton Nemorino – not one to be laughed at but to feel pity for in all his clumsiness. Villazon, who has made so many memorable roles in a serious vein – not least Des Grieux in Manon – here shows his talent for comedy in a most uninhibited way. If I describe him as opera’s Mr Bean, I hope readers realize that this is a compliment to both Rolando Villazon and Rowan Atkinson. Vocally he surpasses even Domingo and Di Stefano, up till now the two best competitors on complete recordings, and Una furtiva lagrima is so masterly sung with infinite care. Both my wife and I were absolutely breathless during the aria and the audience in Barcelona seemed to share our admiration. The applause and ovations lasted forever and after what felt like an eternity Villazon, who struggled to remain in his role, had to give in and reprise the aria, singing it as exquisitely as before. Even though the rest of the performance had been just ordinary it would have been worth the price just for the sake of Una furtiva lagrima.

But as I hope I have made clear there are plenty of other reasons to acquire it. The sound is great, the film team have done a good job, without being particularly spectacular. After all this is not a show-piece but a rural melodrama. They have chosen to let us see it from a certain distance, obtrusive close-ups being quite sparse. I have seen quite a number of performances from Gran Teatre del Liceu and had high expectations concerning the quality of chorus and orchestra. I wasn’t let down.

Whatever other versions you may have of this lovely opera the present issue is worth adding to the collection, primarily for Bayo and Villazon. Villazon’s Una furtiva lagrima is magical. The whole performance is so charming, so entertaining and so human.

Göran Forsling

see also review by Robert J. Farr

So charming, so entertaining and so human.