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Wednesday 14 November 2012

L'Elisir D'Amore at the Royal Opera House


L'Elisir D'Amore is a firm favourite of mine, not because Donizetti is a particularly cherished composer for me, but because this opera has one of the best librettos of any operatic comedy. The characters are amongst the most rounded, believable and subtle in Bel Canto, and as a social drama it's one of the most sophisticated and realistic depictions of interactions between men and women that the art form offers, whilst also offering serious insights into the relationship between society and the individual, the psychology of groups, the sources of social worth and power, the value of intelligence and stupidity, cruelty and kindness. Dramatically it is also very tight, with the plot unfolding logically and economically, and the ending for once satisfactory. Donizetti responds to this fine text with one of his best scores - it's still not as memorable and brilliant as the best Rossini and Bellini - but he does match the action with the music very closely, and he uses a wider variety of orchestral colours than usual too.

Laurent Pelly's production updates it to the 1950s. Updating to the '50s is such a common regie trope that it barely feels like an updating anymore - it's just one of the generic eras where opera takes place along with with "slutty 18th/19th century" (so named by the inimitable Zerbinetta of Likely Impossibilities). It just stands for a nostalgia hit and escapism, and is roughly the time when the majority of opera audiences were young. Wouldn't this opera be better in 1914 or 1939 where signing up to the army would actually have meant something? Anyway, I don't want to go on about this, as it's basically just a neutral setting. What Pelly does do well is capture the boredom and crushing uneventfulness of provincial life in that time - the desolation of the town square is immeasurably brightened up by Dulcamara's truck and he puts on a dazzling show when he arrives. The people in the town also deal with boredom by make problems for themselves and each other purely for entertainment. Adina is particularly trapped because she is very bright, and she is prepared to do the incredibly reckless thing of marrying someone just for her own amusement in getting even with someone who has annoyed her. The comedy is astute and the characters resonate. Pelly is very good at creating mood, atmosphere and contrast from simple means too, and the night sky of surrealist lightbulbs that descend during Una furtiva lagrima just melt the heart a little bit more. Unfortunately Pelly was not present for this revival, so things were left in the hands of revival director Daniel Dooner, and as a result the action lacks the last degree of Pelly's trademark attention to detail and wry sense of humour. Other classic signs of a revival are that stage movement can seem unfocussed (i.e. "why are the characters walking over there now?") and the directions of exits and entrances sometimes make little sense.

But Pelly's touch usually shines through and everyone is clearly having fun. Most of all, the principals are really interacting with each other acting wise, which makes it fun to follow, which is just as it should be. Roberto Alagna sings a touching Nemorino, and for once he seems well suited to the acting requirements of his role too, though he is perhaps getting a little old to play this part. He has a tendency to sit slightly flat of the note these days, but his Una furtiva lagrima is still a treat - when not overtaxed as here, he can colour the voice beautifully and deliver a lovely line. Most critically for him, he is clearly engaged dramatically which usually means an excellent performance from him. So what if the voice isn't as beautiful as it once was: he's still better than 95% of tenors out there.

Aleksandra Kurzak is a good Adina, capturing the character's mix of intelligence, energy, youth, cruelty and sexyness well, though occasionally she can be a bit hyperactive with her gestures and sometimes borders on mugging. Vocally she is very accurate in the mild coloratura that this role requires and offers a generically pretty sound, with some lovely expressive portamenti and an excellent messa di voce. The voice is small but  well produced, though the very top notes are disappointingly thin and slightly unstable.

Ambrogio Maestri is an unexpected piece of luxury casting as Dulcamara, especially so soon after this summer's Falstaff. I really love how casual he is on stage, but he's weirdly charismatic too, and of course his outsize physicality is just funny on its own. His voice is massive, and he seems to be able to sing highs and lows without any effort whatsoever, as casually as his acting in fact, and the text is there for him to add fun and colour. His whistling during the "s" sounds of his Barcarolle with Adina is an inspired touch.

Fabio Capitanucci is an OK singer, with solid technique, though the sound is totally lost by his vocal covering  which means he is simply unable to sing above a mezzo forte. Acting wise he seemed a bit awkward as Belcore though he did his best, and offered more charisma than he did in last season's Les Troyens.

Bruno Campanella was in the pit, offering a lovingly nuanced and joyful account of a score that is hardly a conductor's opera - the playing of the ROH orchestra was exemplary, particularly from the strings. A fun evening.

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