by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sometimes a fine wine must remain in the cask before its full body and rich accents can be sampled and savored. This superb live recording of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, bottled at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1962, remained unreleased until 2009.
This recording features Luigi Alva and Mirella Freni, two great singers thoroughly steeped in the bel canto tradition. Mr. Alva is best known for singing Almaviva on Claudio Abbado's classic 1970 Il Barbiere di Siviglia. His light, agile tenor is a perfect choice for Nemorino, with a quality of fresh-faced innocence and a feeling of pure joy in the character's comic possibilities. Things turn serious though (as they should) for "Una furtiva lagrima," taken at a slow tempo with all the sentiment necessary to melt Adina's heart.
Mirella Freni made an international breakthrough with these performances. Her voice is at its very peak here, soaring to glorious heights and capturing the vixen. There is no trace of the fine dramatic actress who would dominate the stage in Butterfly and Don Carlo: this performance is all air and light. La Freni proves herself to be a fine comic actress, eliciting laughs from the listener even without the benefit of a running translation or a visual image.
As Dr. Dulcamara, the quack who sells Nemorino a bottle of fermented grapes as a love potion, Sesto Bruscantini gives a fine comic performance. His rollocking entrance, accompanied by some fine choral singing and the traditional onstage trumpet brings the comic insanity to a new high. Enzo Sordello is pompous, a little wicked, and very funny as Nemorino's rival Belcore. His duet with Luigi Alva on "Venti scudi" is a highlight of the second act.
The balance of the live recording is good, favoring the singers over the orchestra. Although the sound of turning pages (either on the conductor's podium or at the desk of the harpsichordist) indicates where the Glyndebourne engineers placed the mikes. There are also occasional stage noises and audience laughter. They add to the aural experience of a real, live night at the theater with great singers making a group effort to bring Donizetti's comedy to sparkling, bubbling life. A treat for oenophiles and audiophiles alike.