L’elisir d’amore: Punch-drunk love

If you’ve ever gazed upon a stage full of picturesque Italian peasants and thought, “This would be so much better if it looked like something out of Brazil!” then have I got an Elisir d’amore for you, directed by David Bösch at the Bayerische Staatsoper.   Life in Nemorino and Adina’s post-apocalyptic village isn’t easy, what with the bombed-out looking landscape, rapey soldiers, and shortage of furniture.  But, like the chorus with their pathetic little watering cans, they learn how to find love under difficult circumstances.  The results are fabulous.

And your blogger does her best to appreciate the musical assets of Joseph Calleja’s Nemorino under some trying conditions.

Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore.  Bayerische Staatsoper, 1/3/2011.  Production by David Bösch, conducted by Justin Brown with Joseph Calleja (Nemorino), Laura Tatelescu (Adina), Nikolay Borchev (Belcore), Alessandro Corbelli (Dulcamara), Tara Erraught (Giannetta)

Adina and Belcore.
Note that all photos show premiere cast, not the cast I saw.

The set is at first a desert adorned only with a chair and umbrella (Adina’s) and a lamppost with a phone on it.  Despite some quite spectacular effects (some using old-fashioned means like glitter and balloons), the production’s focus is on the characters.  We first meet Giannetta, whose role is greatly expanded in this production into a nerdy teenage busybody in awkward glasses and a dirty wedding dress, who constantly hangs on Nemorino (who never notices that she has a giant crush on him).  He’s a dork himself (though here neither stupid nor idiotic), and the elegant, literate Adina seems totally out of his league.  Belcore and his soldiers are senseless brutes who rape and pillage, and his relationship with Adina never seems quite consensual.  While Adina usually is played as a manipulative bitch who needs to learn to be nice, here Nemorino and Adina go through the same journey: they must learn to defy conventions, Nemorino by refusing the macho world of the army and Adina by learning to tell a man that no means no.  This change was appreciated by me!

Dulcamara arrives in a gigantic spaceship/something that glows, shoots sparks, lets off smoke, and has twirly bits sticking out all over the place (see top of post).  In the words of the program, he comes as a god to the village, one bringing the dream of consumerism (I love German programs! this one also indulges in a close reading of the gondola girl song!).  The machine’s approach was the first time I ever found the excitement of the chorus greeting Dulcamara to be merited.  The elixir itself comes in a giant tank with a hose of the sort you use to spray insecticide.  The production is full of details like this, and confetti, and the treatment of Giannetta, but it balances this silly stuff with close attention to the protagonists and the darkness of the setting itself.  The desolate atmosphere adds surprising poignancy: these people are really struggling to find happiness under difficult circumstances.  Trust the Germans to make L’elisir d’amore depressing, I know.  But I found it touching.

This production premiered around a year ago with an almost entirely different cast (original Adina Nino Machiadze sang earlier performances in this run).  The spirit was not quite aligned this time around, and sometimes it read like a very ordinary Elisir on inventive sets.  Not that there’s anything really wrong with that, but I suspect that the original cast was able to find a more distinctive tone and more comic details.  The big set pieces, including Nemorino’s now-infamous striptease with the women’s chorus, were the best moments, but the less tinkered-with scenes were not nearly as interesting (also, note to tenors: you may think black underwear looks more flattering, but it makes you look like you’re wearing a 1920’s swimsuit).

As Nemorino, Joseph Calleja (not pictured) sang with effortless sweetness and his instantly recognizable timbre, a light, bright lyric tenor with a fast and narrow vibrato.  It sounds lovely and he knows how to sing with style and feeling, but I found his Nemorino underplayed and not integrated into the production.  He was sympathetic, straightforward, and I kind of like a Nemorino who has two brain cells to rub together, but this production seems to demand someone with more personality and presence onstage.  The “Una furtive lagrima” was the most beautiful of my recent hearings, though not the most intense.  One of the most famed moments of this production in its original iteration was Nemorino singing the aria from halfway up the set’s lamppost, but Calleja did not do this at this performance.  I didn’t mind, and his release of a bunch of balloons into the flies during the final bars was a nice touch.

Laura Tatulescu (also not pictured) has a light, focused voice with plenty of carrying power, and made a sympathetic, rather passive Adina.  Unfortunately, after a solid evening she came to considerable grief in the aria at the end of the opera, running out of breath and cutting off the usual fermatas, racing through cadenzas, and singing no acuti at all.  I’m not sure what happened because the rest of her performance was good.  Alessandro Corbelli as Dulcamara was not in best voice either, sounding blustery and approximate, and did not make as much of the comedy as I think could have been done, especially considering that Dulcamara emerges from his machine wearing a spacesuit.  As Belcore, Nikolay Borchev showed barihunk qualities of swaggering acting and perfectly acceptable if not very memorable singing.

There must be something on the cover of the Elisir d’amore orchestral score that reads “This Score May Only Be Conducted Very, Very Poorly.”  This was the worst-conducted performance I have heard since Elisir in Vienna in October.  The orchestra sounded heavy and uncoordinated, and stage/pit relations were hostile.  In the arias, the conductor more or less followed the singers, but ensembles proved a trial.  Tempo changes were nail-biters.  While star conducting isn’t exactly necessary for a solid Elisir, something this bad always gets in the way.

Schenk/Anti-Schenk:  On December 21, I saw Otto Schenk’s Wiener Staatsoper production of this opera.  Both it and this were repertory performances with non-premiere casts and showed signs of limited rehearsal.  Schenk’s production emphasizes the preciousness of the story, making both protagonists childish, the peasants very tidy and cute, and the events always light.  Bösch’s production has wildly creative visuals that interpret the story with much greater complexity, and the production has a whole featured a much more interesting mix of darkness and comedy.  And the characters, even in minimally rehearsed form, seemed to grow a lot more. I found it a much more involving and emotional experience.  Given the choice I’d pick Bösch’s fun-house in a second.

Photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper.


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  1. Wow, what an interesting version of L'Elisir! This was fascinating to read. I don't comment often, but I love reading your reviews of the operas you're seeing.

  2. It looks fantastic. Is it being filmed for release on DVD does anyone know? Who are the tenor and soprano in the trailer?

  3. Thanks, DKoren!

    I don't know if they're filming it, Trevor, but I wish they would too. Nino Machiadze and Giuseppe Filianoti are in the video.

    I also should have mentioned that this production will be back in May with Anna Netrebko (!) and Matthew Polenzani.