The sun shines on Nadine Sierra, Liparit Avetisyan and Ambrogio Maestri in the L’elisir d’amore revival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Sesto Quatrini (conductor). Recorded live (directed by Rhodri Huw) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 5.10.2023 and viewed at the Everyman Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex, 9.10.2023. (JPr)

Nadine Sierra (Adina) and Liparit Avetisyan (Nemorino) © Clive Barda

Director and Costume designer – Laurent Pelly
Revival Director – Paul Higgins
Set designer – Chantal Thomas
Lighting designer – Joël Adam
Chorus director – William Spaulding

Adina – Nadine Sierra
Nemorino – Liparit Avetisyan
Belcore – Boris Pinkhasovich
Doctor Dulcamara – Ambrogio Maestri
Giannetta – Sarah Dufresne

Productions clearly can evolve over the years when entrusted to a talented revival director (here Paul Higgins) somewhat distanced from the original team responsible for the staging. In my 2007 review when this co-production with the Opéra National de Paris was first performed at Covent Garden 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 those was when a fast-moving Jack Russell terrier ran across the stage and then later back! The good news for dog lovers is that there is one called Skylar who repeats the trick in 2023.

Sixteen years ago I felt all concerned were perhaps taking Donizetti’s 1832 melodramma giocosa a little too seriously even though the description does suggest a story with some humour rather than a comic opera. The story’s laughs come from the social mores of a small Italian village where Spring has sprung and love is in the air. The flighty Adina owns the local farm, her friend Giannetta and a group of those working on the land are having a siesta. Nemorino, a young villager, sadly laments how he has nothing to offer Adina but love. Adina is urged to read the story of Tristan who won the heart of Queen Isolde by drinking a magic love potion and Nemorino decides this is what he needs. A quack, Doctor Dulcamara, arrives and sells him his ‘cure-all’ elixir so that he can win Adina’s heart though it is only cheap Bordeaux. By consuming the entire bottle Nemorino is so drunk that he becomes uninhibited and pretends he does not care for Adina anymore and she is so miffed that she agrees to marry the army sergeant Belcore, a womanising braggart. As in most rom-coms, after more misunderstandings, another bottle of ‘elixir’, an enlistment in the army, a buyout of that enlistment and a rich uncle dying and leaving his fortune to Nemorino, true love wins out in the end. The story is timeless and Donizetti’s music – full of gorgeous bel canto aria and duets, a very demanding patter song and joyful rustic choruses – can be full of charm.

Originally important to Pelly’s staging was how women were depicted in Italian post-war cinema, though this seems to have been diluted even more from what I saw in a 2012 revival with the comedy now, much, much broader, or is it just my imagination? However a certain French ‘take’ on Italian peasant life remains and when the braggart sergeant swaggers in with his ‘little and large’ soldier companions it brought back memories of TV’s ‘Allo ‘Allo!’. A huge ziggurat of hay bales – which is intelligently used – dominates the first scene and throughout Chantal Thomas’s set designs are solidly three-dimensional; there is a hay-baler, a tractor, a roadside trattoria, bicycles, scooters and a lorry-load of Dulcamara’s ‘snake oil’. The passing of time is realised mainly by Joël Adam’s lighting which progresses from sun-drenched morning to the starry sky of evening.

For the big scene change during Act I there is a front cloth with adverts entertainingly explaining how Doctor Dulcamara’s potion is the answer for everything – and I mean everything! – accompanied by suitable pastoral sounds, including crickets. Apparently – as we soon hear from the good Doctor – it is perfect for bed bugs and so all of it should be quickly bought up to eliminate the current infestation in the UK!

Liparit Avetisyan was an open-faced Nemorino and his commitment could not be faulted as – with endless enthusiasm as both the character and singing actor – he clambered over the haybales, along the hay baler, up and down a ladder and fell off Adina’s bicycle. He did all the physical comedy very well: the pratfalls, dancing and drunkenness were acted with a practiced ease which made him a very engaging Nemorino. Avetisyan has the sweet-toned, lyric subtlety perfect for his character and his top-notes were totally secure including the one which involves Nemorino lifting a bale of hay at the exact same time! However whilst ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ was generally beautifully sung, with great feeling, as well as exquisite vocal finish, I suspect he has sung it even better on other occasions.

Avetisyan was just one of an excellent quintet of principal singers. Unbelievably this was Nadine Sierra’s house debut as she is one of this generation’s finest young sopranos and seems to light up the stage whenever she is singing. Sierra’s coloratura is effortless and her voice has a lovely fluidity and she was dramatically convincing as the flighty, manipulative – and very sexy – Adina who actually is attracted to Nemorino from the outset, even if she perhaps doesn’t initially realise it. I enjoyed all the trials and tribulations of being a modern woman Sierra added and revealed with some wonderful facial expressions that truly brought her Adina to life.

Ambrogio Maestri (Dulcamara) in 2012 © Catherine Ashmore

Boris Pinkhasovich’s blustering Belcore was well sung and he portrayed someone who was swaggeringly confident of his own charisma yet has none. Towering over the stage – very much like those haybales in the opening scene – was Ambrogio Maestri’s experienced Dulcamara who effortlessly mixed comedy and sleaze. A late replacement for the ailing Sir Bryn Terfel, Maestri – who was Dulcamara when I saw this production in 2012 – was back in Vienna as Gianni Schicchi two days later (review here). His patter sounded a little rushed at times during ‘Udite, o rustici’ as the tempo from conductor Sesto Quatrini – another Covent Garden debutant – didn’t appear to do his Dulcamara any favours. Overall, Maestri still gave a masterclass in how to sing his demanding aria and indeed the whole part. Finally, Jette Parker Artist Sarah Dufresne was a winsome Giannetta amongst a supporting cast that has her and the Royal Opera’s always enthusiastic chorus, representing a real farming community.

In general, Quatrini conducted with affection, real style, a sure touch and deep appreciation of Donizetti’s idiom, and was excellently supported by a reliable orchestra; so let’s us hope it is not too long before Quatrini returns to conduct something else at Covent Garden.

Jim Pritchard

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