I 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 who—against 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.
But 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 mess—but 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.
It 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