Saturday, March 10, 2012

Met Opera Review: "Elixir of Love" is a Dose of Perfection

By David Salazar (For the 03.09.2012 Performance)

I am not exaggerating with my title in the least.

But I do have one major gripe with this performance that has less to do with the performance and more to do with certain decision making. How is this performance not on HD in 3 weeks? Let's check the facts:

A. Juan Diego Florez + Diana Damrau + Mariusz Kwiecien +Alessandro Corbelli = Superstar Cast. They are superstars for a reason (reason being that they have the habit of giving superstar type performances on a consistent basis).
B. Donizetti's L'Elisir D'Amore = One of the most accessible operas both dramatically/comically/musically in the entire canon and hence a perfect work to reach out to not only the seasoned opera goer, but the new opera audiences both young and old. Sounds like a good way to promote opera to the unseasoned. 

C. Factor A  
 Factor B 
$$$$/ A happy audience/ Artistic fulfillment (I'm these are all equally important to the Met management)

So how is this performance not being streamed on Silver Screens across the universe in 3 Saturdays? One argument that you could throw out right away is: why not argue that every Met performance which is supposed to be top-notch should get HD consideration. Agreed, but Elisir is has a greater opportunity to pull in new audience than its most immediate competitors (operas that have not gained an HD in years) such as "Khovanchina." 

Another common argument would be to take a look at that nice new program announcing next year's Met season and it's new production of L'Elisir d'Amore and it's HD programming. If this year's Elisir were on HD and then eventually on DVD, then next year's would face a tough challenge of finding itself on DVD also. Afterall, how could the Met fathom to attempt to sell 2 great performances of the same opera so close to each other? I have the same question for the HD of Aida next year since it was already HD'd three seasons ago and found itself onto DVD last year. And in the same production no less (which already saw a DVD release from the 1980s with Placido Domingo, Aprille Millo, Sherill Milnes, and Dolora Zajick). What about two Lucia HD's 2 seasons apart in 2009 and 2011, of the SAME PRODUCTION no less! This Elisir's history? One live stream from 1991 featuring Mr. Luciano Pavarotti that was promptly released onto the DVD market in 2005. 

Another reason for this Elisir's neglect? Management's apparent disapproval of this production. According to the Financial Times:
"Peter Gelb, the not always diplomatic general-manager of the Met, doesn’t like the 20-year-old production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore that was revived on Monday. In a recent New York Times interview he called it “cute” and expressed relief that it would be replaced next season." Which is understandable, but hardly an excuse (seems a bit capricious actually) for denying superstars like Juan Diego Florez and Diana Damrau the opportunity to shine on the silver screen this season, ESPECIALLY in a such a crowd pleaser of an opera.

But I digress mightily. The above ranting should only serve as a reflection of how much I loved this Elisir d'Amore.  In my opinion, all of the elements of what make a great night at the opera were on stage and in attendance to the highest degree. 

John Copley's production has gotten a bad wrap over the years. Critics point out that it is silly. That it tries too hard to be cute (as aforementioned before, Management agrees). Many feel that it takes away from the humanity of the work and makes it a clumsy, cliche, and hokey farce. I beg to differ. I agree that this is certainly not a cerebral "Elisir" in the least, but to call it disrespectful to its source material is going to far.  The staging is rather bare bones with some wooden stairs on both sides of the stage and colorful flats coming on and off to create the environment. It is a minimal staging (kind of surprising that management, which favors minimalist productions so ardently would reject this one) which lives and dies by its actor's energy.  The characters are dressed in traditional attire. The overall feel is one of levity and joy. Not a tinge of darkness anywhere. From the photography on the new programs for the 2012-13 season, it seems that Mr. Sher's production next year will be a bit more "raw" and "dark" which seems to be synonymous with "ART" in the modern world. If it isn't raw and grimy that its gratuitous and superficial. I do not believe that Copley was attempting portray any deeper meaning in the work, but I definitely believe there was an intent to toy with this most playful of operas. And in this respect the results of this performance were spot on. I have yet to hear such an enthusiastic audience in years at the Met. The crowd was ready to applaud at any given moment and for much of the night, that is exactly what they did. The energy in the audience only makes me question why this isn't being screened in HD and later televised for the world to see. 

Juan Diego Florez needs no introduction here. He possesses one of the finest (if not the greatest) light tenor in the entire world. You will never hear a strained note, a gratuitous accent, or a labored or uninterested phrase exit his mouth. Every word, every sound has a purpose and it is packaged in one of the most suave, delicate, and sublime voices around. It is really difficult to pick out vocal highlights in a night rich in them from Florez. Add in Florez's excellent acting abilities and you have a complete package. His Nemorino starts off timid and increasingly awkward as he tries to conquest his beloved Adina. Once the Elisir comes into play, this Nemorino finds pizzazz in his step and the confidence that permeates everyone of his movements. During the "Tra-la-la" sequence that follows his initial consumption of the Elisir (which is really a bottle of Bordeaux) he pulled every possible dance move in the standard repertoire which was met with eruptions of laughter from the audience. Every new move led to increasing fits of laughter. This all climaxed in an explosion of applause that was not only for the incredible display of acting, but for the ability to maintain precise control of his voice throughout. The word "Virtuoso" comes to mind. But Florez's showstopping did not end there. Later on, during the "Venti Scudi duet" Nemorino has a quick coloratura flourish that leads to high G in the score on the words "Dulcamara volo tosto a ricercar." Florez interpolated a high C to end the aria that drove the audience wild as it broke into tremendous applause and momentarily impeded the progress of the music. I have never heard this response at this particular part. The infinite applause that followed Florez's tender and caressing "Furtiva Lagrima" was completely expected, but certainly not the showstopping during the aforementioned moments.  

Florez's object of desire; the Isolde to his Tristan was Diana Damrau, another powerhouse singing actress. One review neglected her performance as mere "flitting of the dress" which I think is nothing short of unnecessary and disrespectful. Damrau brings so much charisma and energy to her Adina that gave great life to this often vapidly portrayed character. It is so easy to put Adina off as an attention seeking flirt that only falls for Nemorino after she loses his attention. From the start, there were hints that Damrau actually liked Nemorino. Damrau's Adina was stuck between her interest in Nemorino and her freedom. After seeing that she could lose the only stability in her life (Nemorino's love), she turns. Yes, she still flirts and dances about (Damrau is a tremendous dancing singing actress in this performance) but she is also shy when the time comes to confront her feelings for Nemorino. Damrau's singing was glorious throughout climaxing in arresting coloratura during her final Cavatina in which she expresses her love for Nemorino. She preceded this with the aria "Prendi, per me sei libero" filled with utmost polish and delicacy. There was even some frailty in her vocalization of this aria, providing some insight into Adina's own insecurity. That first "Prendi" started off softly, crescendoed infinitely and then slowly came back to earth with a fluid diminuendo that was ethereal in its execution and almost felt like we were meeting this Adina for the first time.  Despite this all, Damrau's Adina was still self-centered and no other moment expressed this selfishness as she attempted to regain Nemorino's attention from the flirtatious group of women with an interpolated high note that rang through the theater. The note is not written in, but Damrau's choice here was incredible from a character and dramatic standpoint. 

Like his co-stars, Mariusz Kwiecien was clearly having a great time. Throwing his captain's hat as he ran off stage after recruiting his rival Nemorino; dancing about with his new love interest; attempting (but failing) to lead his soldiers about the stage. Despite his aloofness and clumsiness, Kwiecien's Belcore still thinks he is the consummate Alpha Male. His physical confidence and charm during his entrance aria was matched by muscular and flexible vocal ability. This was a completely different color from the more suave and light touch of his Don Giovanni, but no less beautiful. Despite the fortitude exuded by his voice, there was ample grace, best portrayed in the "Venti Scudi" duet where the demanding coloratura flourishes were conquered with unmatched ease. Most Belcores that I have heard lack the agility necessary for these demanding passages, but Kwiecien once more proved why he is a star among the masses. 

Alessandro Corbelli was hilarious as the charlatan Dulcamara. His opening monologue "Udisti" was commanding and intriguing, like any Dulcamara's entrance should be. His voice exuded tremendous brilliance and vibrancy when Donizetti's writing demanded he open up. His interpretation of the Act 2 duet/song "La Nina Gondoliera" with Adina included numerous colorful vocal inflections that elicited laughter from the enthused audience. The latter duet with Adina was highlighted by his fretting around on staging as a rooster. Despite the levity of the scene, there was an honesty of Corbelli's Dulcamara being mesmerized by Adina and really trying to sneak in some "action (so to speak)" with her that there was a tinge of pity for his aimless attempts.

Layla Claire had a strong night as Gianetta with some thrilling vocal fireworks during the large ensemble at the heart of act 2 in which the women attemp to win over the newly rich Nemorino from Adina. 

Donato Renzetti was triumphant at the podium. However, his greatest success was to blend into the background and give his singers the floor. His brilliant accompaniment seamlessly propelled the work forward. The heavy brass was kept in check, which is a relief considering how some conductors like to overemphasize the brassy orchestrations of certain Italian operas leading to what I like to call "circus music." 

Returning to my point about the HD, it baffled me that such a fulfilling performance can forever be neglected and left without a historical record. Yes we will have a wonderful radio broadcast, but a lot of the incredible acting will be missed. I don't want to overdue the praise, but I believe that if there were a time for an emergency HD, this would be the time to pull it out. No one loses here, especially not the Met. If you feel up to it, write to the Met and ask them for it. Let's see if it makes a difference.  

As for all those who question the artistic integrity of this production, I would like to remind all that art and entertainment are not far apart. This production might lack the symbolic intellectualism of most modern productions (thought none of the Met's 2011-12 NEW productions thus far can make such a claim), but it more than makes up for it with tremendous energy and fun. I certainly would not treat Wagner or most Verdi like this, but Donizetti's work certainly facilitates this kind of treatment.When the performers are having such a great time on stage, it is impossible not to feed off that excitement in the audience. The audience's responses made it clear that this is what opera audiences love from certain operas. And last time I checked, the Met succeeds if its audience is happy. This is the perfect way to say goodbye to this unjustly maligned production. Mr. Bartlett Sher and his "Elisir" have a lot to live up to next year. 

And just for Fun: We decided to stay after the performance and greet the singers.


  1. Wonderful review. I saw an earlier performance live and fully agree. Saturday's performance should have been an HD. Something special all around. - mJ

  2. Thank you for this excellent review. I agree with it absolutely.

  3. I envy you!
    Being able to watch such a superb show is once in a lifetime experience, I'll bet!
    You are absolutely right - Florez+Damrau+Kwiecien+Corbelli is an invincible cast for this opera. What's on Peter Gelb's mind isn't important anymore, but that he is an idiot!
    The 'new production' next season will, of course, have that neckless Anna Netrebko(grown so plumb now that she's virtually neckless), and Matthew who sings well but who cannot act.
    Lucky we still have Diana in Rigoletto, but alas, what about JDF?
    JDF? JDF?
    NOT on MET HD?
    May be JDF's 'stage' has grown TOO BIG for that petty Metropolitan opera already. With Gelb at hem, it is petty indeed!