Sunday, January 26, 2014

Elisir and Other Love-Drugs

Donizetti’s Elisir d’amore at the Metropolitan Opera
January 17, 2014

Adina (Netrebko) reading the story of Isolde's love elixir
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera 
Lui: It is a truth universally acknowledged that all you need is love. But what does one need in order to procure that love in the first place? Many of the characters in Donizetti’s deceptively deep Elisir d’amore put forth assumptions of their own, and over the course of Act I several hypothetical elixirs are proposed. What is it that makes someone fall for you? Is it country bumpkin Nemorino’s simple-minded, bull-headed persistence or the way he shakes his hips in the charming little dance he does? Do words alone do the trick in the form of desperate pleas? Or are “i soliti sospiri,” the sighs of a lover’s lusty desire enough? Is it army sergeant Belcore’s gallantry, his boastfulness, his overweening self-confidence? Or is it chemical? Is there a drug you can take to procure the desired effect, like quack doctor Dulcamara’s famous fleeting elixir? “In quel cor non son capace lieve affetto ad inspirar,”* Nemorino proclaims in his first aria. And so, in what is truly the show’s opening number, we are presented with the question pervading the whole opera: What is it that makes us capable of inspiring that highly sought after “lieve affetto” in the soul of the object of our affection.

Nemorino (Vargas) sighing over his love 
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
After failing with his usual routine of supplication and debate, Nemorino changes tack and seeks his expedient for love from the itinerant confidence man posing as a doctor. While he waits for the “buon Bordeaux” he bought in the guise of a mythical-medicinal “elixir of love” to kick in, Nemorino starts to ignore Adina, the woman he desires. And as it turns out, this is what starts to change the tide in his favor. Once cold to his every affront, Adina slowly warms up since she suddenly misses the attention he used to lavish on her. By the end of Act I, it seems that playing hard to get is the best way to prod her into love. In addition, Adina responds sympathetically to Nemorino as he is brutally pushed around by Belcore in front of the townspeople. Love may also stem from her compassion for this poor man’s plight.

Mariusz Kwiecień as a playful Belcore in 2012 
Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Adina’s pity for Nemorino was particularly enhanced in this run of the production, where Belcore was played by Nicola Alaimo, a very corpulent Italian baritone who portrayed the sergeant’s arrogance as cruel, abusive and brutal. Quite a difference from when we first saw this production in the 2012 season opening gala, when this same character was played by the sexy Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień, who interpreted Belcore’s boastfulness as playfully charming and sardonic, coming off as the jerk women can’t help but like. When Adina flirts with a Belcore as attractive and fun as Kwiecień, one can think that she may actually be into him and perhaps also want to have some fun together, in line with her initial spiel about free love. On the other hand, if Belcore is of an unappealing Falstaffian size and demeanor, it is clear that Adina never really falls for him but is just going along with his advances mostly to appease a threatening invading soldier. Nicola Alaimo’s singing was very strong and dominating as Belcore, giving a darker, scarier twist to a character that is often played as simply an entitled womanizer.

Belcore (Kwiecień) makes Adina (Netrebko) swoon
Photo credit: 
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Belcore (Alaimo) scares Adina (Chuchman)
Photo credit: Andrea Mohin / The New York Times

Lui: It was like Falstaff fever had infected this year’s revival of last year’s new Bartlett Sher production. Belcore was played with the arrogance and overabundance of a Falstaff still in the prime of his military life (incidentally, Alaimo did play Falstaff at the Met earlier this season). It is amazing what a difference casting makes, even just physiologically.

Nicola Alaimo as a Falstaffian Belcore
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera 

Lui: In Act II further remedies for love are put forth: Does drunkenness turn a lover on? Or is money the true elixir of love? Wealth seems to be all the rest of the country girls are looking for in a man. As soon as they find out that Nemorino has suddenly become the recipient of an immense inheritance upon the death of his uncle, they descend on him like chicken on corn. But Adina sets the elixir story straight in one of her most beautiful duets with the itinerant quack, Dulcamara, this time sung powerfully by opera heartthrob, Erwin Schrott. “La ricetta è il mio visino,” she tells him when he tries to sell her his famous phony elixir as a solution to her amorous woes. She knows that her pretty face and feminine wiles are all she needs to attract her prey. No love-drug, not even a bottle of Bordeaux is necessary for a woman who knows how to play her charms.

Netrebko's high energy Adina
Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera
Lei: With explosive acting and singing, Anna Netrebko and her ex-partner Schrott were on fire. Against all rumors that she may have called in sick at the opening of this run of Elisir because she did not want to share the stage with him, Netrebko was in excellent form, maybe the best I’ve seen her so far. Her acting was really intense and high energy. Vocally strong, light, fast but also highly lyrical at times. I believe she can still deliver an outstanding Adina regardless of what some say (that her voice is now too chesty and mature for this character). Actually, she perfectly embodies the bossy, power-woman side of Adina. At the end of the day, she owns and manages a farm so a more womanly portrayal can definitely fit with the character. She exudes charisma and passion. Always been a fan, after tonight even more so.

Lui: The chemistry between the two of them was electric and playful and fun. Even if there was a little tension, they really played off each other nicely. The dynamic changes when they cast a hot young hunka hunka burning love like Erwin Schrott to play Dulcamara. It opens up the possibilities of a series of flirtatious exchanges between he and Adina, which is exactly what we got. Sparks were flying during their interaction late in Act II. Their banter was so vivid and lively when the quack doctor is trying to sell Adina on his magic love potion and she realizes that she has actually fallen for Nemorino that I found myself caught off guard by the sudden shift to Nemorino’s big aria as the melancholic refrain of Una furtiva lagrima kicked in.

A hot Dulcamara (Schrott) and a giggling Adina (Netrebko)
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera 
Ambrogio Maestri as a fatherly Dulcamara in 2012 
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Lei: While I’ve seen Dulcamara done as a young and sleek con artist (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo in Otto Schenk’s 2005 Vienna production), this is the first time I’ve seen him portrayed as a Jack Sparrow type. It worked and was fun, although Schrott’s acting often referenced the Johnny Depp character a bit too closely, a lighter hand would have probably worked equally well. Pirate looks aside, I liked Schrott way better than Maestri who, at least when we saw him last year, acted as a fatherly and condescending figure without much depth. Dulcamara’s portrayal by this hot Uruguayan bass-baritone had definitely more sex drive, as he seemed to be groping every peasant girl who happened to pass by and was very much bewitched by Adina’s “una tenera occhiatina” (though that may be because his real-life ex was as charming as ever). Schrott was also, together with Netrebko, the strongest singer on stage, really owning the Dulcamara character, with perfect Italian, playful crowd-pleasing acting and effortless vocal power. Yet another excellent baritone who is a pleasure for both the eyes and the ears.

Dulcamara - Jack Sparrow (Schrott)
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera 
Lui: Ostensibly set during something like the Italian Risorgimento with an invading army of foreign soldiers, this new production takes Nemorino’s simpleton a bit more seriously, casting him as a tormented soul who is smarter than anyone gives him credit for. During the overture he paces out in front of the curtain with a little notebook in which he jots down the poetic thoughts that aggravate his soul (however, he is still too dense to pick up on the finer points of the Tristan and Isolde story Adina reads to them). Later the soldiers are surprised to see that he knows how to write his name, a moment when in most productions he simply signs his life away with an “X,” which is all that is required of him since they take him for an illiterate country boy.

Nemorino (Vargas)
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Ramón Vargas looks and acting delivered an excellent Nemorino, sweet, funny and adorable. Definitely more convincing than Polenzani in this same production back in 2012, who played it almost Hamlet-like, constantly looking startled by the circumstances around him but without that lightness and boyish innocence that are quintessential Nemorino character traits and that Vargas portrayed so well. I wish I could have equally positive comments on Vargas’ signing but I am sorry to report that he confirmed my theory that these days there’s a devastating tenor famine. Do they not make world class Italian-style tenors anymore? Vargas started weak then warmed up and did a few good things, but delivered a merely passable Una furtiva lagrima that left me lukewarm. While the aria is about one furtive tear, if it’s done right my tears run copiously and I even sniffle a bit. All I experienced this time was a touch of extra eye moisture but no waterfalls whatsoever. So disappointed. Also, the fact that Vargas butchered quite a few Italian words (for some reason he kept pronouncing double consonants as singles) did not make him score any extra points

Act I sets
Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera
It’s funny how seeing the same production a second time can trigger very different reactions. When I first saw Sher’s Elisir in Spetmber 2012, I got out of the Met ranting and pouting, complaining about its blandness and unimaginativeness for an opening gala and excessive seriousness that betrayed the core of Donizetti’s masterpiece. While I stand by the non-gala worthiness of this setting, after seeing it again, I really enjoyed this production as traditional yet solid and handsome. One thing though I still cannot stand: the finale with folks lining up bottles of elixir on the front of the stage. It just does not work with the libretto and the spirit of Dulcamara’s final aria. I really think it’s more effective when the quack doctor and his assistants hand out elixir bottles to the crowd selling them as real love potions, having everybody buy them and instantly fall in love with their neighbors, in a love apotheosis with Dulcamara triumphantly exiting as the savior of the village.

Act II sets 
Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera
Lui: Barlett Sher’s new take replaced a slightly psychedelic, slightly cartoonish 1991 production that wore its illusions on its sleeve. Sets were lifted up and down and in and out during the performance so that the stagecraft was an element of the story itself. Though I was not convinced by Sher the first time we saw his work at last year’s gala, I have to admit that it grew on me this time. Having recently revisited the old production on DVD, this new one is definitely an improvement on the Met’s precious storybook take on Donizetti’s tightly woven, wrenching (I always cry) love story disguised as an opera buffa. Though in part I want to credit that to the thrilling cast we saw in it this year lead by conductor Maurizio Benini. It’s amazing how strong singers and compelling presences can make all the difference, particularly when stars like Netrebko and Schrott are in such good form.

Lei: We saw one of the most gossiped opera ex-couples deliver a terrific joint performance and, yes, kiss enthusiastically (on the mouth!) at curtain call – perhaps singing about the tricks of love with your ex at the Met is yet another elisir d’amore to add to our list.

Adina (Netrebko) smiling at Dulcamara (Schrott) – off character?
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera 

* “In her heart the slightest affection I am ever unable to inspire.”

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