New Voices in Met’s L’elisir

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, NY; January 13, 2014—Bartlett Sher’s just-a-season-old production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is back at the Met, with its handsome if predictable, flat, painted sets by Michael Yeargan and mostly-lovely costumes by Catherine Zuber. Sher said last season that he was setting the opera in Italy (and not “the Basque country”) in order to make a statement about the military and the Risorgimento. If ever an opera didn’t need a subtext it’s this one: the story of a somewhat nerdy bumpkin who loves the town’s smartest girl and is duped by a traveling quack doctor into buying Isolde’s Elixir of Love is light and amiable, particularly because she eventually realizes that he’s a darling and that she loves him as well. But Sher has portrayed the visiting soldiers and their sergeant as bullies—an odd, not very funny choice. This season much of that has been toned down, and it’s all for the better.

What has remained is a nice sense of both the class system in a small town, with Nemorino at the bottom until his uncle dies and leaves him rich (he’s the last in the town to know about it), and, more importantly, of the meaning of true love: Nemorino is wonderful to Adina and will do anything –even spend his last ducats on Bordeaux thinking it’s a “potion”—to get her to love him, and it works. When Adina finally acknowledges her love for Nemorino, he grabs her in a big hug and kisses her—for quite a while—much to his, and the audience’s delight. So who cares about the military?

As the hapless Nemorino, Ramon Vargas was in fine voice, with only a hint of wear around the edges. He remains a sensitive singer with a beautiful tone, and his acting—happy, sad, running, and jumping—was right on the money: he made the character precisely as loveable as he should be. Andriana Chuchman, taking over for an ailing Anna Netrebko, was equally at home as Adina. A pretty, perky, slim woman with a bright, agile voice and demeanor, she navigated the music and text well. If the voice gets a bit unappealing at the top—it seems to lose resonance and vibrato—those few notes were a small price to pay. As in last season, one is stumped as to why this character wears a top-hat: where would she get it, and is it helpful in an agrarian society?

The role of Sergeant Belcore, the soldier who ambles into town and thinks he’s a gift to women—and particularly, Adina—was taken by the very large Nicola Alaimo (who sang Falstaff earlier in the season). Hardly a matinee idol worthy of his lady-slaying ego, he’s nonetheless a nimble actor and sports a fine baritone voice. Bass Erwin Schrott was a Johnny-Depp-ish quack doctor Dulcamara, and after beginning his aria completely off-key, he sang a witty, knowing performance, with a grand, Met-sized voice and fine charisma.

Maurizio Benini led with verve and charm, considerate of the singers and able to keep ensembles moving and together. The Met Orchestra and Chorus seem in top form. “L’elisir” will be played five more times through February 1st.