The Met’s new Mehlisir d’amore

Are you DELIGHTED yet?

For a repertory performance, this Elisir d’amore would not have been all bad. The singing is decent and the story happens, though the beats fall haphazardly. But this was a new production for the Met’s opening night, which requires confronting the reality that a lot of people thought that making this thing from scratch was a good idea, and put a lot of time, craft, and money into it.

The ideal seems to have been to create something as mainstream and inoffensive as possible. In practice, this means the production has all the appeal and originality of a suburban shopping mall (whose multiplex probably plays The Met Live in HD). There’s a ritual aspect to opera, particularly live performance. There are certain thrills we want to experience, together, over and over. But new productions are for, you know, new stuff, and to come up with something as cookie cutter as this you have to be really actively opposed to creativity.

In other news, I love you, Trebs, but stop kidding yourself.

Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore. Metropolitan Opera opening night, 9/24/2012. New production (premiere) directed by Bartlett Sher, sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lights by Jennifer Tipton. Conducted by Maurizio Benini with Anna Netrebko (Adina), Matthew Polenzani (Nemorino), Mariusz Kwiecien (Belcore), Ambrogio Maestri (Dulcamara), Anne-Carolyn Bird (Giannetta)

L’elisir is a human comedy that has to find a way to balance sincere emotion with slapstick, and deal with the fact that its hero Nemorino is, well, not the sharpest tool in the shed. (I think this is why most productions keep the setting rural and full of peasants. Those country people are dumb!) This production preserves the traditional rustic Italian setting, though the set is blown up to almost Zeffirellian proportions. The stage is framed in a false proscenium that fulfills its promise to portray only a storybook—these are faultlessly clean and well-dressed peasants, with a generous touch of opera’s favorite time period, Slutty 18th and 19th Century (it’s like the 18th or 19th century, only with more cleavage). There seem to be both farm folks and town folks, but I couldn’t figure out why. Anna Netrebko’s Adina does wear a top hat, and an outfit with a red skirt and belt that led some people in front of me to conclude that she was “a gypsy” (sic).

Many of the sets are flat cutouts. The maze of buildings, wheat and many unidentified objects reads very badly from the bird’s eye view of the Family Circle, I can’t really tell you much more about what it looks like. (To paraphrase Mitt Romney, those trees are not the right height). But while the sets speak of Italy, the lighting plot is of Sweden in December. Gratuitous follow spots pop on and off randomly, and it always looks like sunset. I tried to figure out how much time was passing between scenes and what time of the day it was supposed to be, and I had to give up.

 Sher portrays Adina and Nemorino on close terms from the start, getting physically intimate with each other even before the elixir is involved. But it’s not consistent, and Sher prefers everyone to constantly run around and fall over a lot rather than anything genuinely emotional or constructing a convincing through-line. And since they started getting in each other’s faces, unless you have some detail there’s nowhere you can really go. (I was in the Family Circle, FWIW.) But for all the broadness there is little that is funny here. And if you’re going to make this a psychological drama you have come up with characterizations a little more distinctive than these. Belcore is not as over-the-top as usual but nor is he anything more than a guy who comes on and sings an aria. I guess you can choose to pass up comedy if you like, but to have such wonderful opportunities as Dulcamara’s aria, Nemorino opening the elixir bottle, and the gondola girl song pass with hardly a laugh makes the whole thing even more confusing and bland.

This may have been partially due to a certain lack of star wattage. Anna Netrebko is a treasure but has a hard time wrapping her increasingly big, dark voice around this light part. While the results were sometimes interesting, and the sound is pure gorgeous, her pitch went flat sometimes and this voice in this role is, despite her aggressively flirty acting, matronly. As for that top hat, I don’t know. It makes no sense, though it isn’t alone in that regard. The stage desperately needed lighting up, and she wasn’t quite enough to do it.

Based on Matthew Polenzani’s sound, you’d think he should be more famous than he is. But considering the whole performance his place seems, as cruel as this might sound, about right. He has lovely technique and smooth liquid tone, sounds Italianate enough, is musically tasteful, and can sing piano like nobody’s business. But he is completely, utterly lacking in charisma. (That only one of these photos features him is not my fault but rather the Met website’s. Maybe that means something.) Nemorino might not be a glamorous guy but he’s the hero and you have to be rooting for him. Polenzani is just this dude singing, and his dramatic ritardando at the end of “Una furtiva” was immaculate and accomplished yet empty.

Mariusz Kwiecien sang Belcore cleanly but sometimes has a bit of strain in his voice in the higher ranges. Ambrogio Maestri is a big man with a big voice and is very Italian and would thus seem ideal for Dulcamara, but despite booming it out just fine (with an excellent upper register) never seemed to have the personality to match his other attributes. Anne-Carolyn Bird’s Giannetta chorus scene was beautifully done, featuring several of the most elegantly shaped phrases of the night.

Maurizio Benini kept to the tradition that Elisir d’amore should only be conducted very, very badly (see my records on this—yeah, I like this opera and go see it a lot, we go back, Elisir and I, and for the record my production was cuter than this one and I still have the bottle of elixir sitting on my bookshelf). Coordination was faulty in the chorus preceding Dulcamara’s entrance, the tricky concertante that closes Act 1, and several other spots. In general Benini seemed content to let the singers do their thing and not make anything too exciting or dramatic.

Alas, this seems to have been everyone’s mission. Doing anything that hadn’t been done before doesn’t seem to have been on anyone’s mind. It’s less twee than most of Sher’s other work for the Met, but it’s slapdash, superficial, and hella boring. I think I’d actually prefer to see Otto Schenk’s Vienna production, which isn’t any more innovative but at least doesn’t bury its characters in sets and shadows. If opening night sets the tone for the rest of the year it’s going to be a long, long season.

On the way home I tried to think what would make me want to see this thing again and I came up with the following casts:
Marina Poplovskaya and Lance Ryan
Simone Kermes and Johan Botha
Nadja Michael and the sax/flute player from the subway
You might gather I think this production needs an infusion of weird energy. Putting together a certifiably insane HIP diva and an immobile Heldentenor might not be kind to Donizetti but it would sure be something different. Any further ideas?

Should you wish, this production is on for the next while and on HD later.
Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met Opera.

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  1. To be fair, I think Polenzani would have come off better in a production that was less aggressively bloated. The-nice-guy-that-nobody-notices seems about right for Nemorino, but in this production he's forced to work way too hard and run roughshod over his natural gifts.

  2. Keep in mind that the Netrebko, Kwiecien and Polenzani were contracted to do Eugene Onegin as this season's opener and when it was postponed until next year, the Met's administration figured this was the best way out. Sher did a great South Pacific, an iconic work of the American musical canon (read: something he just may understand). His take on opera has been less than successful, particularly when he tries to do a revisionist take, as he did in Hoffmann. He doesn't trust the music or the libretto and ends up leaching most of the magic or, in this case, fun out of the work.
    I love the Liceu's production, which updates the setting to the 1930-40s. Belcore and his troops could be a bunch of fascists but that's never a part of it. As you point out, he's just full of himself. Nemorino runs a newsstand and can read but he still comes off as a lovesick naif. The details are just right and never get in the way. Sher wants us to notice everything but the music.

  3. I think that Polenzani kind of lacks the sunniness and joie de vivre that Nemorino needs. He comes across as sulky and angry. He's not helped by the directions, which inexplicably make him a moody and emo Werther-like protagonist. The personregie in this production was just awful, kind of sucked all the humor and fun out of this opera.

  4. Reading your review was just what I needed after having sat through this dull non-event at the Met tonight. And did you happen to read Sher's interview in the playbill? He goes on and on about what he was trying to do was show that this is "two operas," one of which is about the Austrian oppression of Italy and the revolutionary spirit that would sweep through Italy (decades after this opera was performed). Grasping at straws for some interpretive lens . . . but after settling on that lens, he doesn't even manage to put that interpretation on stage to any degree. I am feeling done, done, done with Mr. Sher.

  5. I just got back from the HD. The performances were all wonderful. Netrebko reined in her otherwise huge voice and still sounded in control, beautifully shaped with plenty of dynamic contrast. Polenzani was a pleasant surprise–the Werther bits were toned down and Una furtiva was just gorgeous. Kwiecien and Maestri were just fine and deserve better roles and better direction.
    I did not like Sher's vision (quelle surprise) although his is certainly one way of looking at L'elisir, but it falls short. Sher doesn't trust the score or the libretto. At all. He leached all the spirit out of the first act. The violence was gratuitous and in the end, served no purpose. That's Sher, grasping for straws. Go watch the Liceu production if you want to see a re-imagined setting-1930s Italy but if the soldiers are fascists it doesn't matter. The opera's what it's all about.

  6. Spent the afternoon at the HD. My very first opera ever–I know the production wasn't perfect but Netrebko's voice is simply gorgeous and Polenzani's rich and smooth. Did I see guns being unloaded from the doctor's wagon and hastened away? Seemed an odd useless element. I actually liked the sets, especially the opening with Nemorino out front and bustle behind the scrim. And so many hats–Adina's top hat, the soldiers tall hats, hunters hats, and the notary in a high crowed creation with an enormous turned up brim. But the lighting was awful–some chorus members were actually in the dark. I'm hooked–what should I see next?

  7. Anonymous: I'd say take Ms Voight's advice. Go see an opera live. Even if you don't live somewhere with a first rate opera company live is still better. And it doesn't have to be anymore expensive than the HD. I've scored tickets for Canadian Opera for less than a cinema ticket for an HD broadcast.

  8. Agreed, @OR. By all means, see a live production. And if you're near a college or university with a music department, you might just find a production that surpasses anything on the professional level at a fraction of the cost.