United Kingdom Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra of The Royal Opera House / Bertrand de Billy (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 27.5.2017. (JPr)
Adina – Pretty Yende
Nemorino – Liparit Avetisyan
Dulcamara – Alex Esposito
Belcore -Paolo Bordogna
Giannetta – Vlada Borovko
Director – Laurent Pelly
Revival director – Daniel Dooner
Set designer – Chantal Thomas
Costume designer – Laurent Pelly
Associate costume designer – Donate Marchand
Lighting designer – Joël Adam
I am a few months short of my tenth anniversary with this production at Covent Garden and I have been seeing L’elisir d’amore there since 1981 (with Nicolai Gedda and Geraint Evans)? The shades of past singers I have seen and heard seemed to ‘haunt’ me when watching the current revival, though I must immediately explain that I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening and it is the perfect antidote (or elixir?) for these troubled times.
Donizetti’s melodrama giocosa has been popular since its 1832 première and its description alludes to a story with some humour rather than being per se a comic opera. L’elisir gets its laughs from the social mores of a small Italian village where Spring has sprung and love is in the air. Adina owns (or more probably rents) the local farm, her friend Giannetta and a group of peasants are resting and at a distance Nemorino, a young villager, sadly laments he has nothing to offer Adina but love. The farm-workers urge Adina to read the story of Tristan who won the heart of Isolde by drinking a magic love potion. Nemorino decides to take another magic elixir sold to him by a quack, Doctor Dulcamara, so that he can win Adina’s heart. In a fit of pique – and merely to spite him – Adina announces her marriage to a swaggering army sergeant. The elixir turns out to be nothing but a cheap claret and – as in most rom-coms – despite trials, tribulations and misunderstandings true love wins through in the end. Donizetti’s music is potentially full of charm and the amusing story is timeless.
In 2007 this co-production was new to Royal Opera but had already appeared three times at the Opéra National de Paris where it was first put on in June 2006. It is by the same team- Laurent Pelly, director and costume designer, set designs by Chantal Thomas and lighting by Joël Adam – whose La Fille du régiment at Covent Garden is much revered.
The prostitute was always an important figure in Italian post-war cinema and this genre – typified by Fellini – is very much the world that Laurent Pelly wants to evoke. Adina comes across very unsympathetically at first and is seen sunning herself on a ziggurat of hay bales as the curtain rises. There is a distinctly French take on Italian peasant life in the production however, and when the braggart sergeant, Belcore, swaggers into the plot with his ‘little and large’ soldier companions it always makes me think I am at ‘Allo ‘Allo-the musical’ watching Captain Bertorelli rather than Belcore. Now that is a reference for those of a certain vintage like me! This odd couple are given suitable girl friends who are the opposite to them in height!
The sets are solidly three-dimensional; including a hay-baler, a tractor, a roadside trattoria, scooters and bicycles, as well as, a huge lorry-load of Dulcamara’s elixir. The passing of time is realised by Joel Adam’s lighting and a background that changes from sun-drenched to starry sky as the day progresses. The big scene change in Act I is accompanied by a front cloth – which I wonder whether Theresa May has seen? – with adverts entertainingly explaining how Doctor Dulcamara’s potion is a cure-all for everything – and I mean everything – and we hear the suitably pastoral sounds of crickets chirping.
Back in 2007 I wrote ‘What L’elisir needs is laughter and tears otherwise what’s the point? I counted only four potentially big laughs when the audience chuckled together rather than individually’ … and one of these was when a fast-moving Jack Russell terrier ran across the stage and then later back!’ Subsequent revivals – this is the fourth – has put the humour back and with Daniel Dooner on duty again the laughter quotient seems to have reached its zenith. This lighter approach stems from 2012 when Roberto Alagna brought his own costumes and performance to the part of Nemorino and appears to have had such a good time with his Adina, Aleksandra Kurzak, that they subsequent became a couple. Nearly all the pictures in the programme are of the Alagnas (or Kurzaks if you prefer) because they will reprise these roles later in this current run. Even if your sense of humour is not the same as mine there is still the Jack Russell, Alfie, rushing back and forth: I challenge anyone not to have a smile on their face when he puts in an appearance.
Rolando Villazón should have been Nemorino in 2007 and should have been singing in this revival but was a no-show both times. A decade ago Stefano Secco was Nemorino and now it was the swarthy Armenian Liparit Avetisyan. He has appeared earlier in the season as Alfredo Germont though I doubt he made as big an impression as he did here. A possible star is born if he gets the correct guidance. He radiated a joy for performing that was infectious. He does physical comedy very well and all the pratfalls, wiggling, dancing and drunkenness was acted with a practiced ease that made him a very engaging Nemorino. His commitment cannot be faulted; he seemed to revel in all the hoisting of haybales, clambering around haystacks and climbing up and down ladders he had to do. His fairly stolid tenor relaxed as he went deeper into the opera and ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ was sublime and a real tearjerker.
It was a fine quartet of principal singers even if they could not entirely exorcise the spirits of those singers of past years. Pretty Yende is making her Royal Opera debut as Adina and if there were any nerves she did not show it in her limpid, sparkling singing. I look forward to hearing her again in a role that might be more challenging. Yende was totally believable as the self-absorbed, flighty, manipulative and sexy Adina who is attracted to Nemorino from the outset, even if she perhaps doesn’t appreciate it. There was an effortless ease to the top of her voice and I love the way this production has the farmworkers and villagers cover their ears for her top notes. Nemorino gets a genuine rival in Paolo Bordogna’s narcissistic Belcore who despite his good looks is over-confident about his own charisma. His is another Royal Opera debut and he sings very well too. In the past some man-mountains such as Ambrogio Maestri and Bryn Terfel have appeared as Dulcamara and with a twinkle in their eye have effortlessly mixed comedy and sleaze. Surely Dulcamara should be a likeable rogue, but with Alex Esposito’s slight figure, shaven head, filthy T-shirt and tattoos the villagers seemed bullied by him and his henchmen into buying his ‘snake oil’. I must make allowances for this strange approach to his character and admit that Esposito was vocally strong. His patter seemed to be rushed at times during ‘Udite, o rustici’, though he could almost be forgiven all for the amusing sibilant he employs during the Act II ‘Io son ricco, e tu sei bella’. Though she seemed rather swamped by all the other larger-than-life performances the always-reliable Jette Parker Young Artist, Vlada Borovko, was a wholesome and appealing Giannetta. The Royal Opera’s always enthusiastic chorus – some of whom do not appear as young as they once were – created a real farming community and any slight lapses in ensemble between stage and pit will undoubtedly be ironed out in forthcoming performances.
After a rather stodgy overture as if conductor and orchestra were feeling their way through unfamiliar music, Bertrand de Billy led as suitably lithe, well-paced and bucolic account of Donizetti’s life-affirming score.
For more about events at the Royal Opera House (click here).