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Teenager in love

L’elisir d’amore, Donizetti’s evergreen comedy about young love, returned to the Met last night with a strong cast, a high energy level from all the performers, and last but not least, a very full house. I think when all is said and done this L’elisir will prove to be one of the Met’s best revivals this season, and it’s a shame it won’t get an HD transmission. 

L’elisir’s charm lies in its simplicity. Except for “Una furtive lagrima” there are no show-stopping arias or ensembles. This is a strange comparison to make but if I were to compare L’elisir to anything, it most reminds me of those 1950’s doo-wop love songs, with their corny lyrics but beautiful, simple melodies about young love.

Each time we have a quarrel,
It almost breaks my heart,
Because I am so afraid that we will have to part.
Each night I ask the stars up above,
Why must I be a teenager in love?

If there’s one artificial aspect of opera it’s often that the people onstage seem to be in love simply because that’s the soprano and that’s the tenor and they have to be in love so they can have a love duet. It’s rare to have an opera that really replicates the process of falling in love, with all its insecurities, misunderstandings, and silliness as beautifully as L’elisir.

I don’t know this for a fact but I would wager that much of the charm of L’elisir is that it reminds every member of the audience of the time when he or she sat at home, thinking, “Why didn’t she call? She doesn’t love me. Oh my god that’s her on the phone. She loves me!”

The opera also attracts world-class tenors on a consistent basis. It was a great favorite of tenors from Caruso to Villazon in the recent past. This is the one opera where a tenor can really get away with being slightly short, pudgy, a bad actor – it is written into the opera that Nemorino is an awkward buffoon. There are no fearsome high C’s, just beautiful music that lies comfortably within the range of most lyric tenors. Even late in the day, when Pavarotti could barely move onstage, Nemorino worked for him.

Juan Diego Flórez is not a natural fit for Nemorino. In the past he’s played confident, slightly rakish characters (Almaviva, Ernesto, Tonio) that suit his somewhat stiff stage persona. His voice, a lean, slender instrument that can handle the most complicated Rossini scales without fear, also has a bright, even nasal edge that lacks the warmth of say, Pavarotti or Bergonzi (just to name two Nemorino’s in the past).

But the opera draws out the best in performers. Florez, who is on the lean, tall side for a tenor, didn’t look like a country bumpkin, but he acted like one, with a funny running gag of bad dancing whenever Nemorino was drunk on the elixir of love. His voice is also not ideal for Nemorino, but he compensated for it with his beautiful legato and style. He took a bit time warming up – “Quanto è bella” sounded weak, but by the end of the first act he was in fine voice. “Una furtiva lagrima” earned a well-earned ovation.

Diana Damrau was actually the more disappointing lead, and one would have thought her voice and stage persona would be a perfect fit for Adina. She wasn’t bad, but she also wasn’t all that memorable either – at times she got lost in the crowd of frilly-skirted peasant girls. I could be wrong but since Damrau was singing an entire run of Barbiere earlier this month, she might not have gotten enough rehearsal time, because her blocking seemed very generalized. Her voice also sounded as if it never really warmed up – when at her best, Damrau’s is a surprisingly large lyric coloratura soprano, but last night she sounded underpowered much of the night.

The best acting and perhaps singing of the night came from Mariusz Kweicien as Belcore and Alessandro Corbelli as Dulcamara. Kweicien was pompous and ridiculous as Belcore. His lyric baritone seemed made for the part. He was a great scene stealer every time he was onstage.  Corbelli is almost voiceless now, but a few weeks ago I wrote about how no one in the Barbiere knew how to sing patter anymore – they garbled the words, and did not know how to capture the natural feel of patter.

Well, Corbelli, even without much of a voice left, knows how to patter – “Udite, udite, o rustici” had exactly the kind of up-and-down, sing-songy cadence of patter done at its best. Like Kweicien. Corbelli is also a natural comic ham, able to bring freshness to the most overdone of schticks. Layla Claire as Giannetta continued her breakout season – with her bright, warm lyric soprano voice, I thought she was an Adina in the making.

Donato Renzetti is a conductor I’ve never heard of before tonight but the band sounded great, energetic, lively, which is what L’elisir needs.

The John Copley production, a Volpe staple that is due to be retired after this season, isn’t really imaginative, but it works for an opera like L’elisir. It relies on old fashioned painted flats, colorful costumes, and everything is in various shades of pink to suggest love, I guess. It’s been traditional in L’elisir for each tenor to do his own stage schtick so in that sense the production serves really as simply a backdrop for the opera, and nothing more.

But it works – I liked the pinkness, the old-fashioned quaintness of the production. Simple, but last night proved that opera doesn’t need a multi-million dollar, computer-controlled, but massively unsatisfying Machine – it can just be a couple people on an almost bare stage, falling in and out of love.

Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera

37 comments

  • aulus agerius says:

    How sweet. It looks like JDF is dressed in velvet…WUWT?

  • Cyrano says:

    I’m slightly shocked at this review as the conducting last night was -- in my opinion -- quite possibly the worst I have ever experienced. The overture was flaccid, the first five minutes of Act I the orchestra, chorus and singers were completely out of sync, and it never really got much better, the only exception being late in Act II when during the women’s chorus about Nemorino’s new found wealth, the orchestra is basically doubling the voices. The night was lifeless. I felt at times like I was listening to Parsifal (which I happen to love, but it is hardly bel canto).
    Overall, the vocalists were fine, except Corbelli who was covered most of the time, but they were fighting an almost impossible battle. I heard several people around me discussing the conductor/orchestra debacle during the performance (“maybe they’re tired,” “I thought it was just me”) and on the sidewalk, after leaving the Met, I encountered three separate groups of people who instead of talking about the singers were simply bewildered at what they had just heard musically. The program stated that Renzetti made his Met debut in 1989. He hasn’t been back since and I frankly don’t know what the reason was for this return. I really hope it gets better because last night was bad.

    • quoth the maven says:

      I wasn’t there last night, and I have no special case to make for Renzetti. But considering what I’ve heard about other revivals this season, I wonder how much rehearsal he had with the orchestra. Perhaps he (but not the management) should be cut some slack?

      • Cyrano says:

        And I will gladly cut him some, as soon as I see evidence that it was lack of rehearsal time. There were times last night that his arms stopped moving. Literally. Once he was apparently taking a long time to turn the page in his score, but the other time I noticed he just sort of stopped conducting for a moment. I certainly didn’t stare at him all night, but he didn’t seem terribly engaged. I have no bone to pick with Rezetti, I’d never seen him conduct before, I’m just saying what I saw/heard. And I don’t know why Elisir would have gotten less rehearsal time than any other opera this season, not saying that has always been adequate.

    • ardath_bey says:

      ghastly conducting, the maestro looked drugged, barely raised his arms during the evening. Out of sync pretty much describes the orchestra, there was nothing “great, energetic, lively”. The tempi were lethargic. Curiously, it worked in Florez’ favor during Una furtiva lagrima, which was gorgeously sung.

      Also, if Nemorino’s music “lies comfortably within the range of most lyric tenors”, I don’t see why it would be a natural fit for Florez. A bit of a contradiction in the review, with all due respect. Technically he can sing the music with his eyes closed. Dramatically he’s always very committed and sincere, so the audience can only win with his Nemorino. Damrau’s voice is too small for the MET, it lacks focus and she covers most of her tops.

      Kwiecien was a GOD. Corbelli acceptable.

      PS Bergonzi is NOT what I would call an example of a great Nemorino, the color is too dark and the instrument too heavy, though his singing was so heartfelt. Pavarotti, Carreras, Kraus are better examples, even Bjorling.

    • brooklynpunk says:

      Having only been able to listen to last night’s performance on line, I was gonna say to Ivy that it was another great example of what is heard on the “radio” vs being in the House being at huge odds with each other… until Cyrano voiced his opinion.

      On the broadcast, at least, I also found the conducting to be at such a dismal level rarely heard , at the MET ( unless Domingo is conducting…..) “Dirge-like” would be a rather polite way to describe what I heard.

      I found the singing, over-all to be VERY VERY lack-luster--although I though Damrau sounded much MUCH better in this then she did in “Barber” a week or so ago. I will reserve comment on Florez, as a number of people in La Cieca’s chat-room made the observation that he does not come across over the airwaves very well..BUT- at least in the first Act, all the reasons I have never warmed up to his voice--in the House- were in evidence ( much worse so, then I had noticed before)- a very unpleasant bleaty nasally sound to my ears..

      AGAIN- this must be tempered with the fact that I was not in the House-- it seemed clear (to me..) that the broadcast mics were not well adjusted, for the first Act,-but were tweaked slightly better for the second Act.

      Something I have been noticing.. in this performance, and in the “Barber” as well, is a certain lack of co-ordination between the pit and the stage in a lot of the ensemble/chorus parts, especially at faster tempi-- there seemed to be a number of “jam-ups” last night

      I’m glad Ivy enjoyed herself… i only wish I had, as much, listening at home…

      • Clita del Toro says:

        Bklyn, Florez, at least to me, sounds pretty much the same on the radio as he does in person.
        I am not his biggest fan, but I do admire his technical ability. The timbre of the voice is another question.

  • oedipe says:

    Florez, who is on the lean, tall side for a tenor…

    Hmm. Who is shorter? Barry Banks?

  • poisonivy says:

    I’ve stood next to Florez. I’m 5’3″ and he’s probably 5’9″ or 5’10.” He’s certainly not a short guy by any means and he’s pretty thin too.

    • bassoprofundo says:

      there’s absolutely no way he’s 5’9 or 5’10. I’m 6’0 and have stood next to him, he’s about 5’5 I’d say. Barry Banks is a few inches shorter.

    • oedipe says:

      Agreed, but who is on the short side then? (No need to mention who’s large, I can figure that out for myself.)

      • poisonivy says:

        Alagna for one is pretty short. Brownlee is also short.

        • oedipe says:

          OK: Banks, Brownlee…

          Alagna is EXACTLY the same height as Florez (there are photos of them together). So are Vargas and Villazon, I believe.

    • DurfortDM says:

      I dunno Ivy. I’m 5′ 10″ and 1/2 and he’s at most 5′ 9 and probably a cm or 2 short of that.

      I’d say Alagna is just a smidgen taller.

      • almavivante says:

        Get out your measuring sticks if you really want to, but I’m 5′ 6 1/2″, and having met JDF, I can tell you he’s only as tall as I am. (Thin fingers and weak handshake, but with that voice and those looks I won’t hold it against him.)

        • DurfortDM says:

          I could go to 5’7″ more easily than 5’9″ but would still guess somewhere between the former and 5’8″. I do think we’ve established that he’s not James Morris, Thomas Hampson or even (the fetching) Anja Harteros.

        • A. Poggia Turra says:

          Another benchmark -- look at this photo:

          http://members.tripod.com/~geerob/41.jpg

          The schlubby guy to the left of JDF is exactly 6’0 tall.

  • Pery says:

    Off-topic: Kennedy Center has just announced its next season, with Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena and Angela Meade as Norma.

    http://www.kennedy-center.org/programs/newseason/#WNO

    • operalover9001 says:

      Good season. If Domingo planned that, my respect levels for him have gone way up. I mean, Radvanovsky as Bolena, Racette and Armiliato in Manon Lescaut, Meagan Miller as Donna Anna, Angela Meade and Dolora Zajick in Norma, plus Damrau, Meade, and Gunn in recitals?

    • ianw2 says:

      Awful. All its missing is another Carmen revival. Don G, again. 2 Bel cantos (though I suppose Norma, even with St Angela of Meade, is still considered a bit of a rarity) and a musical. Small mercies that the Puccini is Manon Lescaut and not Tosca or Boheme, again. The recitals might be nice.

      • Regina delle fate says:

        St Angela of Meade! heehee -- that cheered me up on a cold, grey, wintry London morning.

  • Maury D says:

    I generally liked this review and don’t mean to be a picky killjoy, but…

    This is the one opera where a tenor can really get away with being slightly short, pudgy, a bad actor – it is written into the opera that Nemorino is an awkward buffoon.

    This unquestioned stuff about how an operatic hero is always tall and thin pops up all the time, and it makes me weary.

    (Yes, obviously I’m reacting on a personal level. I’m 5’5″ and by most accounts not purely a figure of ridicule.)

    • Krunoslav says:

      Maury D, yours is the hottest Bomarzo since Salvador Novoa!

    • louannd says:

      I think she is describing Matthew Polenzani. How lucky for us and Bartlett Sher. I hope he does give Matthew a fair amount of direction.

      Nice review aside from the discourse concerning the proper measurements of the beloved JDF.

      The last Elixir I saw was that broadcast from Munich (Why are all the operas lighted so darkly there?) and Pavol who is NOT short, was smashing.

  • manou says:

    “Except for “Una furtive lagrima” there are no show-stopping arias or ensembles” ….. uh there are many, actually, Ivy. There is the ravishing Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera duet between Adina and Nemorino in Act I, the wonderful Quanto amore… duet between Adina and Dulcamara (my favourite) at the end of Act II, not to mention the very pretty La nina gondoliera… and the lively finale.

    The whole score is a delight.

    • Regina delle fate says:

      Hear, hear -- Manou -- Donizetti’s masterpiece, I would say. If he written nothing else he would still be a legend.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    If anything Damrau has become totally forgetable and has not lived up to her potential. The pity is that so many young singers model their techniques, images, and insincere shtick on the current crop of the likes of Renay, La Dessay, and even Damrau. Are we doomed never to hear the most difficult final measures of Sempre libera with the notes that Verdi wrote for them? Donizetti is a compendium of challenges for the voice. Now bluffing from the throat has replaced virtouosity. Musicsianship from young singers is becoming deplorable. The legacy of great singing exists in many formats. One only needs seek an be rewarded with treasure troves of great singing.

    L’elisir is a far great opera than the above review would lead one to believe, but every number needs to be performed to near perfection for it to be a really special experience in the theater.

    • Cyrano says:

      I agree with your initial point QPF (the rest I don’t feel qualified to comment on). Damrau has not done much to distinguish herself the few times I have seen her post-baby. I thought she was excellent in the original run of Barbiere several years back, but this latest turn her voice sounded under-powered and thin. And last night the same thing. In Barbiere I blamed the crappy vocalizing around her (I saw the opener and the men were ragged), but it doesn’t sound like she got much better. I am withholding judgment on last night because it was so chaotically (not) conducted, but that aside her voice lacked the strength it used to have. Not knowing anything about “the voice” (and I don’t mean Renee), could Damrau’s have been weakened by having a child? I personally think Netrebko’s got stronger and richer post-Tiago, but is it possible to go the other way? Or is it all just worsening technique?

      • I think she is losing the top, gradually, as she should by now -- she had the extension purely by technique and singers of her fach -- like Popp -- gradually switch to different roles. I’m not talking about vocal freaks like Gruberova or Robin or Devia. Think of all the coloraturas we know -- Sumi Jo, Luciana Serra, Beverly Hoch etc. The top ot tarnished and wasted. If you’re a soprano coloratura and you can’t re-plan your career by your mid 30s then it will be over pretty soon.

        I think Damrau is trying to cling to the upward extension so she makes the tone thinner. This also happens -- ask any coloratura you know.

        • Cyrano says:

          I appreciate the response CF. The closest I get to knowing anyone who knows anything about opera, let alone knowing an actual coloratura, is right here.

        • louannd says:

          Oh CF, I really miss the golden age of my top notes. All gone now. No more Eflats or Olympia’s song. Gone, gone, gone…

  • I have a side parterre box seat for the March 31st performance (nearly sold out show) but I can’t go! Anyone want to buy the ticket?

  • tiger1dk says:

    Interesting review -- but I do find it a bit strange that a performance where the tenor is not a natural fit, the soprano is underpowered and the buffo close to voiceless should be “one of the Met’s best revivals this season”. Were the other revivals that horrible?

    • Regina delle fate says:

      Florez is a perfect fit for Nemorino in perhaps any theatre other than the Met -- the role was usually sung by the tenorini di grazia until Caruso thought he’d have a short at it and has been very effectively sung by light tenors such as Alva and Valetti. Brave of him to bear comparisons with Pavarotti and Bergonzi. I think I’d rather have JDF than any of the Nemorini we’ve endured at the ROH since the travelling Pelly show came to town: Korchak, Filianoti, and another who was so forgettable, I’ve forgotten.