Thursday, May 1, 2014

L'Elisir d'amore, or, what a drop of red wine can do!

L’Elisir d’Amore, Liebestrank, The Love Potion, Le Philtre … and all variations on the theme from Tristan and Isolde to The Sorcerer and ‘Love Potion Number Nine’. It must be one of the all-time favourites among stories set to music. But Scribe’s libretto to L’Elisir d’amore has a nice element: no fairies or magic, the elixir of love is plain old rotwein.

Donizetti’s setting of the text is lighthearted and stuck through with plums – who does not know ‘Una furtiva lagrima’? – and the opera – with its simple story, one set, and its small principal cast of traditional characters -- has been highly popular for nearly 200 years.
I am quite sure that it has been produced in all sorts of weird ways, but I have only ever seen it done ‘as she was writ’, so when I saw Irina Brook’s name on the bill as director I wondered what we were going to get. Ms Brook gave me one of my merriest ever theatrical evenings a few years ago with her delightful, imaginative Midsummer Night’s Dream in an outdoor theatre above Barcelona. Would it be like that?

Well – and I’m going to say ‘sadly’ – it wasn’t. It wasn’t wholly presented ‘as she was writ’. In the oldest UFA trick in the book, Adina has become ‘an actress’, we have some odd theatrical costumes (huge troupe for the provinces), some red caravans from which people enter and exit seemingly at random, a blue cyclorama and an intrusive travelling ‘stage’. And a chorus. B-minus for the chorus. Not their singing, but oh! the stage business. Chorus members doing acting and stuff during the overture, during the show, fiddle-faddling around while the soloists were singing. Busy, busy, busy! I wanted to dress them all in black and tie them to the scenery to be heard and not seen!

But there is the story and the music (conductor: Roberto Rizzi Brignoli), so I just sat back and listened and tried not to look too much except when the four characters were alone on stage. They were our good old friends the peasant, the coquette, the military braggart and the quack doctor … and the whole point of them is that they are stock characters. With lots of tuneful solos and ensembles to sing.

So, if I wasn’t all that keen on the rather twitchy staging, I was totally happy with the characters as played.

There was no doubt as to whom the show was all about. Dimitri Pittas was a wholly believable heart-rent simpleton. You wanted to pat his head and say ‘it’ll be all right, old chap, have some more booze’. I loved his wholly unpretentious, unstarry performance, including his characterful singing. Nemorino is lucky in that his big song comes late in the evening, when he’s all warmed up and zinging along. But I liked his opening ‘Quanto e bella’ just as much, and I liked everything else that came in between.

Heidi Stober was right on the button as the coquettish Adina. Adina doesn’t have an ‘Una furtiva lagrima’, but she has plenty of joyous, frilly music to sing, especially in duet, which she delivered with panache, and her performance was only slightly damaged by her constant fidgety putting-on and taking-off of pink dressing gowns et al.

Nicola Alaimo was a copybook quack doctor visually and dramatically. He started a bit unwarmly, and his opening ‘Udite, udite o rustici’ was a little tame, but he soon swung into gear and sang richly and fluently to the end, while all the time painting another endearing character.

Sergeant Belcore (Simon Pauly) is not endearing. He just wears a uniform well. And sings baritone. So he is obviously not going to get the girl. Pauly looked splendidly superior, but he sounded rather effortful vocally.

So, this was not my all-time favourite L’Elisir d’amore, but I will still go away from the evening with an abiding memory of the heart-warming Nemorino … and of a ‘first’ in my experience: an operatic soprano taking and holding a long arabesque!

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