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