The first of this season’s Metropolitan Opera’s TV broadcasts was transmitted around the world today. Donizetti’s Elixir of Love is in my opinion one of the five best comic operas ever composed. The other four are two by Rossini and one each by Verdi and Puccini. Donizetti’s take on comedy tends towards the sentimental whereas Rossini takes no prisoners and sees the world much as do the Marx Brothers.
First performed in 1831 the opera is the earliest one by the composer that has been continuously in the standard repertoire. It was also the 43rd opera by him. Donizetti certainly gets the Richard M Nixon Award for persistence in the face of humiliating adversity. Anna Bolena was his first opera to achieve any kind of success and that was number 30. Don’t hold me too close to these figures as Donizetti was so prolific that it’s very hard to get all his operas in the right numerical order. All together he wrote about 75 operas, 16 symphonies, 19 string quartets, 193 songs, 45 duets, 3 oratorios, 28 cantatas, instrumental concertos, sonatas, and other chamber pieces. And this frenzy of notation was completed before he was 50.
This production by Bartlett Sher replaced the perfectly serviceable one last seen at the Met earlier this year. It opened the Met’s current season. Today staging was the 273rd at the NY theater. It was mounted as a vehicle for the Met’s reigning diva – Anna Netrebko. This casting presented a potential problem that the Met was able to overcome. Ms Netrebko is such a powerhouse on stage that you can’t take your eyes, or your ears, off of her. That might be OK if the opera were Tosca, which Netrebko in her current state of refulgent splendor should sing. But this opera belongs to the tenor. Last season Juan Diego Flórez garnered an encore for his singing of the work’s signature aria during the Saturday broadcast – Una furtiva lagrima. I didn’t think he merited it; but that’s what happened. When I learned that Matthew Polenzani was to be Nemorino I was worried that he didn’t have enough voice or presence to stand up to Netrebko’s Adina, but he did.
Sher’s take on the opera, a pleasant tale of a somewhat dimwitted bumpkin in love with the town’s most attractive and powerful woman, is to downplay Nemorino’s naïveté and mental sluggishness by focusing on unrequited love. Sometimes this worked – eg, Dulcamara comes to really believe in the efficacy of his cheap wine as magical elixir. Turning Belcore into a brute who beats up Nemorino is a less felicitous idea. Bowdlerizing the subtitles to make Nemorino less of a nincompoop was unnecessary. But mostly the production ran quite well because of Donizetti’s great score and because of the skill and charm of the principals.
Netrebko’s voice has deepened and is richer than it was at the start of her career. her looks are still dazzling and she acts with conviction and elan. One easily understands why both Nemorino and Belcore are smitten with her. She’s one of those rare operatic artists whose voice and appearance both operate on the highest level. A prima donna assoluta.
The biggest surprise for me was the fine work of Matthew Polenzani. I’ve watched him perform a number of times. He impressed me as another good but not memorable singer. I didn’t see how he could avoid being blown off the stage by Netrebko. His singing was consistently excellent. While he doesn’t have a voluptuous sound it is pleasant and today he sang with artistry and feeling. His acting was convincing. Una furtiva lagrima was sung softly with great line and feeling. There was no interpolated high note at its end, just a complete expression of the feeling that this aria, which sometime overwhelms the opera, requires. He received a well deserved ovation. When he and Adina finally got together and fell to the ground in each others arms the audience cheered.
Mariusz Kwiecien has a light baritone that is just what’s needed for Belcore. He conveyed the sergeant’s harmless bluster except when he was pummeling Nemorino. Bass Ambrogio Maestri is a huge man; at the start of the second act when he was attired in a gold outfit he looked like the golden brocade curtain from the old Met had been found and draped around him. His interpretation as the lovable quack was very good. He couldn’t make you forget Fernando Corena, but he has the buffo style down pat. Maurizio Benini conducted with energy and the Met chorus was excellent, if superannuated, as the villagers and soldiers.
Micheal Yeargan’s sets were painterly and in keeping with the time of the opera – about 1830. Costume designer Catherine Zuber clad everyone in lovely attire that none of the characters could have afforded were they real. The only odd touch was the top hat the Ms Netrebko wore from time to time. Ms Zuber said something about riding attire during the intermission interview, but I thought that the hat made Netrebko look like she’d come from the Andes rather than an upper class stable. Also, Dulcamara’s entrance lacked the pizzazz that it deserves. he quietly enters in a wooden wagon.
In summary, this was a terrific performance of one of opera’s greatest and happiest works. Catch the replay if you missed the show. You might still want to see it even if you made the first go around.