Radio Review – L’Elisir d’Amore (The Metropolitan Opera)

I’ve always regretted the fact that I live in a city that doesn’t present that much opera. I’d love to live in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, or any other city that has a multitude of opera houses with a variety of performers and repertoire. However, I have to content myself with radio broadcasts and CDs. As it happens, I’m starting to really enjoy listening to operas without the distraction of the production or acting, and really focus on the music itself. Of course, it’s doesn’t provide you with the full experience of going to see a live opera, but it’s also nice to be able to sit at home with a score and just listen to the singing.

The Metropolitan opera opened their new season on monday with a new production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. Some critics (notably Anthony Tommasini from the NY Times) have complained that the Met presented two Donizetti operas in two successive opening nights, both starring Anna Netrebko. I don’t think this is entirely fair – first of all, the Met originally scheduled Onegin for opening night, and when that production was pushed back a year, they had to quickly schedule another opera for Netrebko, Kwiecien, and Polenzani. Secondly, Anna Bolena and Elisir could not be more different in terms of the storyline, structure, music – they just happen to be by the same composer. Sadly, Elisir is not as ideal for an opening night performance either. Anna Bolena had the advantage of a glamorous cast, a familiar story, plus the fact that the Met had never put on the opera before. Compounded with the fact that the Met had just performed the opera a few months earlier with Florez and Damrau, the opening of the 2012-2013 season made for a somewhat underwhelming opening night.

In my opinion, the most interesting role of the opera is Nemorino – he is the character that turns the plot from cute rom-com to something more serious. I think Donizetti thought so too, because “Adina Credimi” and “Una Furtiva Lagrima” are sudden shifts in mood and key from the preceding scenes (F major to F minor for “Adina Credimi”, E major to B flat minor for “Una Furtiva Lagrima). As a result, Nemorino has to be not only an accomplished bel canto singer but also be an extremely sympathetic actor. Matthew Polenzani is an incredibly talented singer, and showed that technically speaking, he has both the precise coloratura and the legato lines required for bel canto. His “Una Furtiva Lagrima” was beautiful, with enough (tasteful) rubato and pianissimo phrases to make this popular aria sound fresh. However, he simply does not have the charisma to make the character likeable. Of course, I couldn’t see any of his physical acting, and I’m certainly not advocating casting based on looks or acting skill over vocal quality. However, Nemorino has to have a basic vocal glamour (think of Pavarotti or Bergonzi) to make the character sympathetic, and no amount of brilliant technique can compensate for that.

If anything, Anna Netrebko as Adina went too far in the opposite direction. Even over the radio, it was clear that she was having a lot of fun and pretty much dominating the show. It’s a shame that they picked Elisir – the role really isn’t suitable for her voice at this point, and although there aren’t many operas that would suit Netrebko, Kwiecien, and Polenzani, either Arabella or Merry Widow would have been far more suited to her voice. Her voice was simply too large for the role and you could hear her scaling back her voice in the ensembles. In addition, although her coloratura technique has gotten much better over the past year or so, she had to navigate carefully whenever there were fast runs (which in this role, is most of the time). As a result, her singing lacked some of the spontaneity and energy that I usually associate her with. Strangely enough, she seemed to tire out by the end of the opera – understandable in Bolena, but Adina? Nevertheless, it was an exciting performance and she seemed to be having a lot of fun.

Of the four leads, Ambrogio Maestri as Dulcamara was the most consistent. The other three required some time to warm up, but Maestri started off with a very good, if slightly slow, “Udite, o rustici”. I appreciated the fact that he didn’t choose to make Dulcamara a caricature and bellow and mug his way through the role – from the sounds of it, his acting was funny, but he never sacrificed the quality of his singing. He has a very large voice, which is perhaps why his patter stuff wasn’t taken at breakneck speed, but his clear diction helped articulate those passages. Mariusz Kwiecien, on the other hand, seemed to have the opposite problem. As seen from his brilliant Malatesta at the Met, he is a stylish singer and an accomplished technician as well. Unfortunately, as seen from his Enrico also at the met, he sometimes has a tendency to push his voice. His Belcore tended towards the latter, and his first aria displayed a disturbing wobble. Thankfully, his singing even out as the evening went on, but still tended to sound overly aggressive. Anne-Carolyn Bird sounded lovely as Giannetta, and was thankfully non-chirpy in a role that I classify with Sophie in Werther and Lisette in La Rondine in the “annoying perky soubrette” category.

The Met Opera Orchestra sounded fabulous the whole way through, sounding crisper and cleaner than before. Particular kudos to the woodwind section, who must start out the evening some very demanding, exposed solo runs. The chorus was not on the same level, and often sounded behind the beat. However, that may be the fault of conductor Maurizio Benini, who adopted some frankly bizarre tempos. The ridiculously fast tempo he adopted for the chorus before Dulcamara’s entrance caused some online commenters to speculate that he was simply making up for time lost during the interminable scene change right before. In addition, it seemed like some of the tempos hadn’t been coordinated properly – the Nemorino/Belcore duet in particular lacked coordination for the fermatas. The coordination issues had evened themselves out by the middle of the second act, and the flow between the arias and ensembles in the last quarter of the opera was excellent, but it was too late.

Overall, it was a good performance but hardly worthy of a Met opening night. It didn’t help that the two previous Met runs of the opera in 2009 and 2012 had equally glamorous casts: Gheorghiu/Giordano/Vassallo/Alaimo in 2009 and Damrau/Florez/Kwiecien/Corbelli in 2012. Peter Gelb has committed himself to making the Met opening night a major social event – for Elisir to achieve this level of glamour, they have to assemble a glamorous cast well-suited to their roles, a thought-provoking but attractive new production, and very tight coordination between orchestra, chorus, and soloists to achieve maximum excitement. It was a fun performance and Elisir is a charming opera no matter what cast or production is in it, but for Gelb’s vision of the Met, charming won’t cut it.