Why would a major opera house open two successive seasons with Donizetti? The pastoral comedy of L’elisir may contrast well with the dark tragedy of last year’s Anna Bolena, but it doesn’t really offer spectacle on the scale expected by the Met’s standards, even on the big screen cinema relay. The truth, of course, lies behind the principals; this is the second successive season opener to feature Anna Netrebko and she and co-stars Mariusz Kwiecien and Matthew Polenzani were originally engaged to star in the new (to the Met) Deborah Warner production of Yevgeny Onegin, which has now been shunted back to open next season. Besides which, director Bartlett Sher offers us a version of L’elisir more sober than usual, barring the Bordeaux with which Dulcamara dupes poor Nemorino into believing is a magical elixir.
Rather than its now customary 1950s setting (in London productions, at least!), Sher has set the action in 1836 Italy, echoes of the Risorgimento felt when Sergeant Belcore and his men arrive in Austrian uniform, full of attitude. Costume designer Catherine Zuber has Netrebko’s Adina spending half her time in a red gypsy skirt and bodice (reminiscent of Carmen), wearing a top hat and brandishing a crop. It’s supposed to represent the typical riding habit of rich ladies in early 19th century Italy, but makes her look more like a ringmaster. It seems significant to me that Dulcamara wears a top hat too, as it’s not just the quack doctor who manipulates events here, but Adina as well. She is clearly toying with Nemorino all along, isn’t attracted to the bullying, arrogant Belcore and only flirts with him to inflame her admirer further. She spots the elixir as cheap wine after a quick sniff of the contents, but prolongs Nemorino’s agony further by agreeing to a hasty marriage to the sergeant, nearly losing him in the process. The message comes across that love is cruel when you play games and the way Nemorino is treated verges on the sort of uncomfortable cruelty some audiences see in Don Pasquale.
Michael Yeargan’s sets evoke conservative productions of decades ago, with cardboard cut-out scenery of the piazza, a barn and fields wheeled into place, including a lengthy scene change in Act I. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting evokes dusk and they are pretty enough to look at, but it’s only when the flats are stripped away in the final scene, leaving Adina and Nemorino cavorting in a wheatfield, that any emotional truth in the cynical comedy emerged.
Polenzani’s Nemorino is clearly no illiterate bumpkin, as he appears to be writing poetry in a notebook, which he carelessly leaves for Adina to peruse and add her own line or two. This is Nemorino as Werther, wracked with love for an unobtainable lady. There’s a nice sob in the voice and he handles ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ sensitively, especially his control of dynamics. He produced a warm, lyrical sound, with an excellent legato. Polenzani has never convinced me much with his acting, but here, with his floppy hair, he channelled his ‘inner Villazón’ in a puppyish display verging on the desperate, a real crowd-pleaser.
Alas, Netrebko is no longer a soubrette. In truth, she never really has been. Years of bel canto have improved her technique – her ornamentation is cleaner – but her timbre is now much darker and less suited to these frothy minx roles, even if she does throw herself about the stage with abandon like a leaping Cossack. She’s ready to retire the Adinas and Norinas for heavier repertoire, which should suit her luscious soprano much more. There’s a fair argument that she should have moved into these roles years ago. Her high notes were full and secure and her duet with Dulcamara in Act II, where he convinces her that she really does love Nemorino, saw Netrebko up her game, her sincerity shining through.
The arrival of Ambrogio Maestri as Dulcamara signalled a gear change in quality. Here was an Italian revelling in his native tongue, a large man with a large baritone voice to match. His introductory patter song was a model lesson in the art of buffo singing and crisp enunciation; he was also genuinely comic, nowhere more so than in his ditty at the wedding banquet, when he whistled through his teeth on ‘s’ consonants as the elderly senator wooing Nina, the gondolier girl.
Kwiecien is a blustery Belcore, which suits Sher’s view of the character, but probably also reflects his style of bel canto singing - bruising. The aggressive physicality towards Nemorino makes it all the more surprising that Adina prolongs her ruse in accepting his marriage proposal. Like Netrebko, next year’s Onegin is more tailored to his considerable talents.
Anne-Carolyn Bird’s Gianetta was amiable, if shrill; the Met Chorus gutsy, if foggy of diction. Maurizio Benini bustled through Donizetti’s score, favouring speed over elegance, but his brusque way mirrored the production. Sometimes, a little more relaxation in his tempi mightn’t have gone amiss, but the woodwinds chattered away effectively. Maestri’s Dulcamara, of course, crosses the pond for the Royal Opera’s revival of Laurent Pelly’s L’elisir this autumn, and I can’t help feeling that London will get a little more Italian sunshine with a cast rather more suited to their roles whatever one may think of the Giant Haystack set.
Photographs © Ken Howard