Germany Donizetti: L’Elisir d’Amore,Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Roberto Rizzi Brignoli (conductor), Deutsche Oper Berlin, 25.4.2014 (SH)
Adina: Heidi Stober
Nemorino: Dimitri Pittas
Belcore: Simon Pauly
Dulcamara: Nicola Alaimo
Giannetta: Alexandra Hutton
Ricky: Goeffrey Carey
Production: Deutche Oper Berlin
Director: Irina Brook
Sets: Noëlle Ginefri
Costumes: Sylvie Martin-Hyszka
Lights: Arnaud Jung
Chorus: Thomas Richter
Choreography: Martin Buczko
Since its 1832 premiere at Teatro della Cannobiana in Milan, Donizetti’s comic opera L’Elisir d’amore has remained one of the most frequently performed pieces in the repertory. Even one who seldom attends the opera will likely become acquainted with the quirky characters at some point, from the headstrong landowner, Adina, and her simple yet endearing suitor, Nemorino, to the scheming quack, Doctor Dulcamara. Inevitably, the star-crossed lovers end up in each other’s arms thanks to a miracle elixir, which is actually cheap Bordeaux in disguise. Despite the accessibility of the plot and the beauty of the bel canto score, I have witnessed productions of this opera fall flat for a variety of reasons, including unimaginative staging, bland sets and leading men and women who, while backed by star power, do not believably portray the two lovers (e.g. the current Bartlett Sher production at the Metropolitan Opera). Fortunately, the Deutsche Oper’s new production by director Irina Brook was an example of all that the opera can and should be. Although perhaps leaning a bit too much on slapstick and kitsch, the light-hearted production rang true thanks to skilled singing actors who allowed the story to come alive. It was undeniably one of the most enjoyable productions I’ve seen all season.
The opera was still set in Italy, but the environs would not have looked familiar to Donizetti: we were transported to the 1950s and plopped directly into the makeshift camp of a traveling theater troupe in the midst of rehearsing for a production of Tristan and Isolde. Without knowing this, one could easily become confused by the chorus members dressed in a mixture of medieval costumes and ʼ50s attire. The set, which remained the same throughout the opera but never became tiresome, featured three red caravans surrounding a stage hung with a banner advertising “Teatro Adina.” In Felice Romani’s original libretto, Adina is a wealthy landowner. Here she is the leader of the troupe, although sadly, we see less of her leadership qualities and more of American soprano Heidi Stober’s impressive physique in overly feminine pink outfits. In keeping with the class divide present in the original story, Nemorino is the resident janitor.
Dimitri Pittas did quite well in that role. Despite occasional vocal shortcomings—he sometimes sounded a bit pinched in the higher register and displayed vocal tension during “una furtive lagrima”—his Nemorino came across as a man engulfed with passion (and perhaps a bit more self-assured than how the naïve character is often played). The treatment of the relationship between the two leads made this production truly delightful. In the program, Irina Brook mentioned that the greatest challenge in staging the opera is the believability of Adina’s change of heart. In the first act she claims to prefer to take a new lover every day; in the final act, she tells Dulcamara she wants only one, Nemorino. Brook achieves this by indicating from the start that there is something between the pair, suggesting that Adina’s obstinacy is merely a guise. Judging by their body language in Brook’s staging, one wonders if the characters have perhaps already been intimate.
Stober, a principal soloist in the ensemble at Deutsche Oper, was a stunning Adina. Her sterling, lyric soprano has great depth, and she was sensitive about waiting for the ideal moments to show off her range and vocal strength. This was particularly effective in the second act when she tells Nemorino that she has freed him from his military obligation before confessing her love (“Prendi; per me sei libero”), and the two kiss dramatically during a pause before Adina’s next vocal entrance. This moment, which had been building since the beginning of the first act, came across as genuine, as did their excitement when Nemorino undressed his bride-to-be down to her slip and escaped with her into one of the carriages. She tells the rather indifferent Belcore (played by the formidable German baritone Simon Pauly) from the window that she has chosen another. Shortly thereafter, Nemorino emerges from the carriage in his undergarments to thank the doctor for his magical elixir. Since one could feel the chemistry between Pittas and Stober, it’s ironic to note that Stober and Pauly are actually married.
Doctor Dulcamara, the self-proclaimed “doctor encyclopedia” for his ability to cure anything, is a fraud and ever the comic highlight of the opera. Italian baritone Nicola Alaimo handled the role quite well, portraying the scheming huckster with ease. His relationship with his assistant, Ricky, a non-singing role played by Geoffrey Carey, was quite comical. Brook said she envisioned the two as the product of a shabby circus of oddities from an early Fellini film. Thanks to their heavy reliance on slapstick, I would argue that they came across as long-lost brethren of the Three Stooges. Ricky mirrored Dulcamara’s words with actions, performing various magic tricks with props procured from a cart laden with a large cash register that had clearly seen better days. Making use of a walkway between the orchestra and the audience, the doctor attempted to sell the latter his magic elixir (“udite, udite, o rustici”), first passing out candies to the people in the front row.
At times the staging felt a bit too busy, and it distracted from the beauty of the score, which was deftly played by the Deutsche Oper Berlin orchestra under Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. It diverted attention from the fine singing of the Deutsche Oper chorus as well. I was distracted by Adina’s frequent change of clothes, particularly in the first act; and during the wedding scene when a group of actors performed a Fosse-style dance, chorus members frolicked and Ricky simultaneously ran a puppet show and covered a crowd in string and confetti. The production also suffered from occasionally being too literal and predictable. For example, the headstrong Sergeant Belcore arrives to woo Adina, bearing the gift of a potted orange tree; he plucks a piece of fruit and presents it at the exact moment he sings about Paris giving Aphrodite an apple. In the final act, when Adina sings to Dulcamara about capturing Nemorino with her feminine charms (“una tenera occhiatina”), she dons a large robe from which she procures a variety of objects while singing, including a wine bottle, sausage links and a large cake. But despite these overdone elements, one can appreciate a production that pays such attention to detail.
During the finale, Nemorino and Adina march onto the stage of “Teatro Adina” dressed as Tristan and Isolde. Unlike the tragic 12th-century legend, this delightful production of L’Elisir ensures that both the characters and the audience will end the evening in high spirits.