Cher Public

His cup runneth over

Elisir 1I hadn’t seen the Met’s most recent L’Elisir d’Amore since its premiere three-and-a-half years ago, but I would have sworn Bartlett Sher’s production was pretty traditional. But its revival which opened Thursday night featured an edgy, unorthodox interpretation unlike any I’d ever seen or read about. As portrayed by Vittorio Grigolo, Nemorino was a manic self-absorbed, probably bipolar, stalker whoagainst all odds and good sense—gets the poor girl. One could easily imagine a sequel in which Adina ended up stabbed to death six months after the wedding by her scary new husband. 

My only previous experience of the Italian tenor was a Rigoletto three years ago opposite Lisette Oropesa in which his abundant energy and dashing good looks combined for a plausible Duca. I missed Grigolo last season in both Les Contes d’Hoffmann and Manon but people I respect tell me he gave fine performances in both. Therefore, I was quite unprepared for his Nemorino, one of the most bewildering and narcissistic performances I’ve witnessed in the 34 years I’ve been attending the Met.

Anyone listening at home over Sirius XM or the Met’s free livestream might have had a fairly positive response to Grigolo. The voice sounded healthy and robust, not beautiful but with an appealing graininess and an exciting edge on top. However, there was unfortunately little attention paid to bel canto niceties, with legato more often ignored than attended to.

Although he occasionally remembered to sing softly, more often passages were sung fortissimo when they should have been mezzo-forte. He was better in the many duets and ensembles than in the well-known solo pieces: his “Quanto e bella” was grotesquely extroverted and the sublime “Adina credimi” fussy and lacking in pathos.

But by “Una furtiva lagrima” I had ceased to care—his on-stage antics had become so over-the-top that I had lost any sympathy for Nemorino. In fact, it didn’t seem as if there was a Nemorino on stage—it was all about a famous tenor craving attention from an audience that seemed to eat up his shenanigans.

The ending of the big aria was unlike anything I’d ever seen—toward the end of that beautiful bassoon postlude, a kneeling Grigolo, who had been gazing downward, turned his face to the audience pleading for the ovation which he did indeed receive. As it continued, he looked down; he looked up; he tried to retain his composure; he failed; he broke out in a shy grin which he then turned to the stage floor, but, unable to resist, he again looked up at the audience with “heartfelt” gratitude. The cheering throngs ate it up—every last bit of it—and then gave him a shouting, stomping ovation at the end.

But that display after “Una furtive lagrima” was only the evening’s most blatant self-aggrandizement; he had previously only barely interacted with any of his colleagues. Most of his music was either sung directly to the audience with arms open or “confidentially” to someone sitting in the first row of the orchestra section. He pandered so that I found myself perversely imagining him appearing opposite the Adina of Danielle de Niese, his only real competition in the mugging department.

Elisir 2But poor Aleksandra Kurzak! The Polish soprano who might have been forgiven for just giving up in the face of such gross tenorial misbehavior. But instead she gave such a warm and appealing performance as Adina that one resented Grigolo’s hijinks even more. Sly but womanly, energetic but always sympathetic, Kurzak wore her awkward big black top hat without embarrassment.

Although she was acclaimed as Olympia at her Met debut in 2004, her high notes receded almost immediately, and the Blondchen I heard four years later definitely lacked its high E. Now the top is pretty thin and intonation could be iffy, and while her timbre isn’t particularly distinctive or memorable, she phrases with such sincerity and variety that she immediately wins you over. Her florid singing remains respectable if not dazzling, and the end of her cabaletta was a bit of a messbut then again it usually is. She clearly deserved a more worthy Nemorino.

I was looking forward to Kurzak in the infectious barcarolle at the beginning of the second act but unfortunately her partner Alessandro Corbelli decided he’d “gum” it rather than sing it. When I first encountered Corbelli—in 1988 as Ford in Falstaff at the Lyric Opera of Chicago—he had a nice full baritone, but by the time he arrived at the Met nine years later as Dandini in La Cenerentola it had already dried out considerably and he huffed and puffed his way through Rossini’s coloratura.

Although Jack O’Brien drew a surprisingly nuanced performance from him in Gianni Schicchi, every other performance of his I’ve seen at the Met has been a compendium of all-purpose buffo tricks delivered in a nearly toneless voice. His Dulcamara Thursday was pretty much the same as the one I saw in 2012 opposite Joseph Calleja’s irresistible Nemorino.

For this production the Met had previously cast younger singers with big, healthy voices as Dulcamara—Ambrogio Maestri and Erwin Schrott (whom I heard only on the radio)—so it might have been intriguing to instead hear the performance’s Belcore, Adam Plachetka, as the quack doctor, a role he sings at this home theater the Vienna Staastoper. As Nemorino’s rival, he swaggered and strutted confidently and sang with bluff flair, but his big bass-oriented voice sometimes proved gritty and constricted.

elisir 3It was a surprise to learn that Plachetka often sings Mozart roles as he seems to lack the mellifluous beauteous tone one wants in that repertoire. And Ying Fang’s soprano, so lovely as the Shepherd in Tannhäuser last fall, initially seemed too recessive and soft-grained for Giannetta, but she blossomed sweetly in the second act.

After Marco Armiliato, Riccardo Frizza and Maurizio Benini, we had yet another Italian Donizetti conductor: Enrique Mazzola making his Met debut with Elisir. He clearly knew what he wanted and often drew alert and vibrant playing from the orchestra. But in his zeal for brisk, exciting tempi he occasionally failed to keep his forces together—too often the many ensembles threatened to go off the rails.

Though I recall it came in for its share of critical brickbats when it premiered, Sher’s inoffensive production does little harm. It can, though, be unnecessarily brutal as when Belcore punches Nemorino and has his cronies further rough him up during the first-act finale. But otherwise it again worked well enough, although I suspect stage director Louisa Muller could do little to control Grigolo’s rampaging bumpkin, intended by Sher to be a swooning poet manqué.

As pleasing as it is that my two favorite Donizetti operas are playing simultaneously at the Met—both are seriously compromised: Don Pasquale by its lumbering Otto Schenk production and Elisir by its obstreperous, preening tenor. It’s all the sadder that Javier Camarena, Pasquale’s deluxe Ernesto, would surely be an ideal Nemorino. We pray that that fortuitous casting happens in the near future, but in the meantime two later Elisir performances this season will feature Mario Chang and Pietro Spagnoli replacing Grigolo and Corbelli.

Photos: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

  • redbear

    Norman Lebrecht posted a photo on his blog of the Met orchestra section with a major view of empty seats. Bernheimer, in the comment section, confirmed the poor attendance.

    • And gleeful laughter was heard from Paris.

  • redbear

    Shoot the messenger. Good plan.

    • When the messenger is Norman Lebrecht, shooting sounds like the ideal solution.

  • blansac

    It’s a horrible production. Manages to suck the fun and sweetness out of the opera.

  • YigeLi

    His Dulcamara Thursday was pretty much the same as the one I saw in 2012 opposite Joseph Calleja’s irresistible Nemorino.
    I think it was JDF that sang the Nemorino in 2012 (the 2011/12 season).

    But otherwise it again worked well enough, although I suspect stage director Louisa Muller could do little to control Grigolo’s rampaging bumpkin, intended by Sher to be a swooning poet manqué.
    Based on my experience of performances in LOC directed by her, I don’t believe she could give any effective direction to whomever the singers are.

    • Christopher Corwin

      Thanks, YigeLi, you’re correct. I saw Corbelli opposite Florez (who was also very good in the role). Calleja sang his single Met Nemorino opposite Simone Alaimo--in 2009--hard to believe it was that long ago!

      • armerjacquino

        Corbelli opposite Florez? Calleja opposite Alaimo? That’s some Radical Queer Donizetti the Met’s been serving up.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    Calleja has a distinctive and attractive voice. I wish he sang at the Met more often. His tiny role in Macbeth wasn’t enough.

  • Camille

    Perhaps Signor Nemorino was IN his cups?

    God, I am glad I only heard it via Sirius -- where I did hear at least some improvement from the past but I paid scant attention as I have ear muffs for that kind of pretend singer —- and tuned to the wonderful Esa-pekka conducted Bluebeard’s Castle instead and am going to hear Mario Chang instead, so thanks for Brangäne’s Warnung.

    Ms Kurzak interests me and I am hoping to hear her in house, hopefully on a good night. Sorry to hear her acuti are gone.

    Postscript: it hasn’t sold as student tickets aplenty are being offered. FYI.

    • JustinTime

      Camille, you should not be sorry or concerned for Aleksandra Kurzak’s acuti, because her top notes are doing quite well. What is written is misleading. Please, see my replies

      • Camille

        I see, and thank you.

        Frankly, I was *quite* surprised to hear that they might be as she strikes me as not only a very savvy singer but a technically very skilled one. All one has to do is listen to her mother, a formidable Queen of the Night (I forget her name at the moment and she chiefly sang in Poland) to know where she is coming from! Her video of the big scene from La Traviata from a few years back is really very good.

        I’ve decided to go to the L’elisir in any event, particularly to hear Mario Chang sing as Nemorino, whom I am hoping will be doing well, so I will have a chance to hear her as I tuned out after Act one the other night and had no opportunity to listen to her big scene, “Prendi……”

  • GRDowntown

    I was fortunate to be in the house for Vittorio’s American opera debut in 2007 and days later he was singing his audition at the Met. Beautiful voice, but make no mistake, the opera is a place in which he is the star and everyone else is really not so much a supporting player or an equal but a prop. It really is all about him. In person, however, he has so charisma--it is infectious. I remember in particular a TV interview then in which he ended the interview by clasping and kissing the hands of the interviewer, a middle age woman, who practically turned red on camera on live TV. I only heard the SiriusXM broadcast of this Elixir, but even from that it appeared that Vittorio was practically begging for an encore of the aria, but the audience was with him. They wanted an encore. Whatever your criticisms of pandering or mugging, Vittorio was and is and will always be a STAR. And I do love the voice and the manner is so over the top, I can’t help but be smitten. OK, I love him.

    • operainsider

      His performances in New York are so poorly attended it’s hard to agree he is a star.

      • The Poet Lenski

        That kind of behavior isn’t anything to be proud of. Perhaps Mr. Grigolo would be more interested in a career as a recitalist — no need to compete with those pesky co-stars and productions.

  • LT

    Cossotto has a worthy successor.

  • JustinTime

    Surprised by several points of this review about Aleksandra Kurzak. I think we have just not listened at the same performance! Camille, you should not be sorry or concerned for the soprano’s acuti, because her top notes are doing quite well! From my standpoint, what is written here is completely misleading. Fortunately the show has been recorded and you could hear by yourself if you would like …

    From start I disagree … “The Blondchen I heard four years later definitely lacked its high E” : For years later, it was in 2008, when Aleksandra Kurzak sang Die Entführung alongside D. Damrau. And here is the live recording of this 2008 performance, in the soprano aria “Durch zärtlichkeit und schmeicheln”

    Let’s be fair one minute -- if not too ambitious here. What is the problem with the High E? Can we seriously grant some credit to such a groundless appreciation ?… It was her last light role in her repertoire. After that, she slightly moved to another repertoire. I have never seen anybody singing Blonde and Traviata at the same time. Anyway her voice kept all its freshness and agility, it’s a non sense, or bad faith, to say the contrary.

  • JustinTime

    “Her high notes receded almost immediately” after 2004… Really ?? Are you kidding ? Just one example of her “receding” high-pitched vocals … It was in 2006 in Salzburg. We could look for others. I must say that I do not understand this kind of appreciation.

  • JustinTime

    The same as regards the “now pretty thin and iffy intonation”. Sorry but my opinion is that only this judgement is iffy, and questionable … I heard Aleksandra Kurzak several times performing Adina in recent years, in London, in Munich, in Paris. I listened to the radiobroadcast last Thursday and will be at the Met in late March to hear her live.

    During the opening night, Aleksandra Kurzak’s performance was nothing thin, her voice sounded clear and well projected. Her voice is not only very nice but also perfectly suitable for belcantist parts. Where are your doubts exactly? Hum … fanciful I fear.

    Her way to deal with the top range is fine and expressive. Her tone colorful and rather charming to my ears. It conveys a lot of emotion and impact. Nothing iffy with her musicality and intonation. Rather sensitivity, agility, clarity and robust technical mastery.

    Here is the recording of “Prendi per me sei libero” sung on March 10. Honestly speaking, where is the mess?

  • JustinTime

    For the moment, I observe that the audience is enjoying very much her vocal performance as Adina, as well as her stage presence and acting. Here we have a singer who also knows how to act and move. I also heard her in several parts and particularly Donizetti’s: as Mary in La fille du régiment she was impressive, or as Maria Stuarda where she was highly praized for her convincing debut. Back to Lucia soon and many other challenges coming. Whatever the foolish unfair/unfounded comments I can sometimes read on this forum, I am looking forward to following the next steps of her career. Be sure it is promising and high-calibre.

    • Hey Bobby.

      • JustinTime

        Hey Poison :) Did you really believe one minute that … Mwarfff too funny!