Reading is fundamental.

Good singing and a dramatically potent (if conservative) production were an unbeatable combination on Tuesday night, when the Metropolitan Opera had the season premiere of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. 

First among equals was Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino. His consistently gorgeous voice was put to good use with clean, elegant phrasing and pitch-perfect comic timing. His performance was charming, authentic, and moving. “Una furtiva lagrima” was a satisfying highlight.

As Adina, Pretty Yende made the best of an off night. Though the soprano was not in top form, she smartly capitalized on her strengths—intelligent comic timing, polished phrasing—and she delivered a worthy, winning performance. Her Adina was so delightful, so fresh and alive, that she became an essential component to the evening’s success. She was a natural, charismatic actress—a star.

Davide Luciano, as Sgt. Belcore, sang like a god. The baritone made a near-perfect debut at the house, with a fully developed character and superlative vocal production. He was sexy; he was funny. He stood in stark contrast to Polenzani’s sweet Nemorino, strutting like a peacock with virile swagger.

And finally, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo made for an interesting, imaginative Dulcamara. It was his company debut in the role, though he has previously sung Dulcamara at the Vienna State Opera and Baden-Baden Festival. His bass-baritone was rich and noble, qualities that pushed against the stereotypical expectations of his stock character.

And while maestro Domingo Hindoyan, who also made his debut at the house, tended to drag in his tempos, he brought a crisp articulation to the score. The orchestra sounded precise and well rehearsed.

My personal tastes are not disposed to like Bartlett Sher’s production for the opera, which debuted in 2012. It’s extremely conservative, with very little conceptual intervention. However, his direction still works efficiently, and it gives plenty of room for the cast to seize their roles and generate unique characters, instead of the broad, stock figures one expects.

There’s something effortless and enchanting about the color palette in the composition—ladies’ dresses in varying shades of pastel, the warm oranges and yellows of dry grass, and soldiers’ uniforms in electric blue.

But perhaps Sher’s wisest move is evident in his well-placed dependence on Donizetti’s text, a blind faith in the story and music. L’Elisir d’Amor sparkles with brilliance, more subversively profound than a mere bel canto trifle.

To be a lover, one must first be a fool. Such is the fascinating thesis of the opera. Nemorino, a simple man turned even simpler by desire, is tricked by the quack Dr. Dulcamara into thinking a bottle of Bordeaux is a love potion. In his longing for Adina, Nemorino buys it. He drinks it. And, despite what worldly wisdom might suggest, the elixir works.

Nemorino stands in stark contrast to Adina’s other suitor, Belcore—a vainglorious, aggressive soldier. Where Belcore is worldly and impressive, Nemorino is plain and earthbound. Nemorino is in love; Belcore is in lust. One looks like an idiot; the other does not.

The interplay between these rivals—naiveté vs. worldly sophistication—offers a complicated dissection of our own modern values. Where our culture tends to prize cool, knowing detachment, the figure of Nemorino serves as an encomium of stupidity and foolishness. He is forthright and transparent. He is the only character with true integrity: his inward feelings and outward appearance are entirely integrated.

L’Elisir d’Amore praises the stupid, signifying Nemorino’s silly, blind faith as a virtue over the slick, artful trickery of Dulcamara. The inversion of stupidity and sophistication is a compelling rhetorical move, highlighting the lunacy of love (a theme that points to Plato’s similar assertions in the Phaedrus). And over the course of the narrative, love, insanity, and drunkenness get lumped into a category of otherness—a queer, inverted way of being in the world.

And then there is the Bordeaux, the titular elixir. Let’s not forget that the word “art” is built into the word “artifice.” Indeed, the opera ends with a hymn to artful intervention. Ducalmara sings:

Ei corregge ogni difetto,
ogni vizio di natura.
Ei fornisce di belletto
la più brutta creatura:
camminar ei fa le rozze,
schiaccia gobbe, appiana bozze,
ogni incomodo tumore
copre sì che più non è…

The elixir corrects every imperfection,
every natural defect of the person.
It gives beauty
to the most ugly creature—
the hunchback it makes straight,
the clumsy full of grace—
the lame to run as swift as the wind;
and the largest tumors and swellings
to vanish under the magic influence.

(translation by Oliver Ditson & co.)

The poet Paul Valery once wrote: “a poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words.” This idea, which arguably finds its antecedent in platonic rhetoric, is a point that can be applied across all art. Art is a machine, a drug, an elixir; it produces a desired affect: a poetic mood, laughter, tears, insight, love—like Nemorino’s wine, we drink and we are changed. It doesn’t matter that it’s not real. As Blanche Dubois once had the sense to ask: Real? Who wants real? I know I don’t want it. I want magic…

When the machine (or elixir) works well, we are transformed.