Elisir at Royal Opera House

24 Nov

I hadn’t intended to go to the current ROH l’elisir d’amore – I’ve seen the opera quite a lot and saw the Pelly production and Alexandra Kurzak when it was new and thought I could probably give a miss.  But there was an attractive late offer for the Friends, I succumbed and spent the evening of 23rd November having rather a nice time there.

I like Elisir. It’s one of the very few entirely amiable operas in the repertory. I suppose it would be possible to accentuate the sheer unpleasantness of Adina’s behaviour early on, the idiocy of Nemorino (you could play it that they deserve each other) together with the dubious morality of Dulcamara’s quackery.  But this would go against the charm of Donizetti’s music and I think it would do the work a disservice to look for any more (or less) than a gentle story of one person working out that she’s in love with someone else: Belcore may be a pompous fool but he gives in gracefully at the end and Dulcamars’s charm overcomes any doubts you may have about his ethics. You can’t but admire the gentle skill of Donizetti’s characterisation both in the individual arias and in the duets, duets which are really dialogues and arguments that develop and make you feel that the action and your understanding of the characters has moved forward. If they have a flaw, it’s that they can feel a bit long. Of Donizetti’s major comedies, I prefer the wit of Fille du regiment and the sharper edge of Pasquale, but Elisir is still a nice evening.

Laurent Pelly’s production looks good. It’s gently updated to a bucolic 1950s Italy, miles from the tourist trail with a strong sense of the peasant life and some nice effects for Dulcamara’s caravan, various farm vehicles and a small Jack Russell.  I felt that, at times, it could help the singers provide slightly  larger performances – it isn’t that easy for Belcore to be as fatuous and silly as he could be if he’s clambering over hay bales; and I felt that the opening parts of Dulcamara’s entrance require some interaction with the chorus rather than singing to an empty stage and a Jack Russell. Having said that, it provides a nice frame for whoever happens to be around to sing the various roles and I can see no reason why it shouldn’t be revived as often as the Copley production that it replaced.

This looked like a happy cast. The star attraction was Roberto Alagna as Nemorino. It’s an interesting role for him to go back to at this stage of his career.  It’s not unheard of for tenors to return to Nemorino after having sung Radames and Manrico (Pavarotti and Bergonzi are obvious examples) but they did so a bit later in their careers.  My first impression was that he was singing very loudly and I don’t think he went much below mezzo forte for most of the evening. There were many virtues – elegant, intelligent phrasing, fabulous breath control and, in the occasional passages requiring passion or anger, the sense of a voice finally being given its head. I enjoyed Una furtiva lagrima as a continuous piece of musical thought – an unbroken idea – but I missed a tenderness in the voice that he used to have and the sort of variation in volume that the role needs. He tried to sing the penultimate phrase piano and very shaky it sounded. He showed himself to be a very engaging clown and used his personality to project a character and fill the house in a way that the others didn’t quite.  Rather like his singing, I don’t think you could call his acting subtle, but it was thoroughly enjoyable and, whatever his flaws, he’s still a star.

Alexandra Kurzak was back as Adina.  She was in even lovelier form than last time.  She has bags of charm, sings the role beautifully with just the subtlety and intelligent use of words that you need.  She created an intelligent, very beautiful charmer of an Adina.  What I miss, if I’m being hyper-critical, is the sort of individuality that other singers have used to make Prendi, per me se libero  the heart-stopping moment that it can be.

Fabio Capitanucci was Belcore.  He has a nice warm baritone, sings the words beautifully and it’s lovely to have an authentic Italian sound to them and the instinctive understanding and phrasing that goes with that.  What I missed (and I think this is Pelly’s fault as much as his) was the sheer pomposity and ridiculousness that other singers found – he was a just a bit bland.  I’d like to see him back, though.

Nobody could accuse Ambrogio Maestri of being bland and it was a joy to hear his full, rich bass in a role that is often taken by more elderly, drier voiced basses.  I felt that the early part was slightly hectoring but he warmed up in Act II and gave as beguiling a performance of the old rogue as I’ve seen.  He displayed the sort of personality that I felt was missing slightly from his Falstaff and a ripe, incisive use of the language.  I’d like to see him other roles, perhaps more serious ones – what about Philip in Don Carlos?

Bruno Campanella presided over this benignly and stylishly.  He knows what he is doing in Donizetti and brought out the warmth and delicacy of the score.  I felt that he could have made more of the crescendo in Adina credimi in the finale to Act I (listen to Pritchard’s under-rated recording to hear how he does it), but this was an elegant reading that worked well with the singers.  The orchestra played stylishly and the chorus were on good, clear form.  Susanna Gaspar was a strong Gianetta.

I’ve used the word “nice” rather a lot in this review, but I think that rather sums up the evening. Despite my reservations, I found myself hugely through most of the evening, enjoying an intelligent, joyfu, nicel performance and was glad I’d gone.



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