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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Opera Review: Days of Wine and Voices

Juan Diego Flórez and Diana Damrau in L'Elisir d'Amore.
Back off: she's got an umbrella. Diana Damrau fends off Juan Diego Flórez in L'Elisir d'Amore.
Photo © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
During his tenure, Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb has made it his mission to phase out old productions of standard repertory operas. So Monday night marked the opening of the last run for John Copley's charming 1991 L'Elisir d'Amore. This popular production uses cardboard cutouts, wooden acting surfaces, bright Italian pastels, tri-color flags and a deliberate theatrical artifice to make the giant Met stage ideal for Donizetti's rural comedy.

This setting (which replaced another, even more elaborate version) was originally mounted for the pairing of Luciano Pavarotti and Kathleen Battle. Mr. Pavarotti died in 2007, and Ms. Battle was banned from the Met in 1994. This performance reunited another pair of current stars: bel canto specialist Juan Diego Flórez and scintillating German soprano Diana Damrau.

Mr. Flórez's high, arching tenor has become a crowd favorite. Although he sings with accuracy and great beauty of tone, this is a small voice for the vast Met acoustic. He won the audience from the opening scenes, acting out Nemorino's shyness in "Quanto è bella." He brought enough charm to draw whoops of approval from the upper reaches of the Family Circle. The singer also indulged in limber physical comedy in the scenes where Nemorino drinks the titular "elixir," a bottle of cheap red wine supplied by medicine show salesman Doctor Dulcamara.

The performance got even better in the second act, charting the character's journey to maturity and romance with a warm, rich "Una furtiva lagrima." Although the singer seemed conscious of the famous names (Caruso, Björling, Pavarotti) associated with this aria, his decision to hold pose and ignore the house's thunderous roars of approval spoke volumes for his commitment to the part.

This was the fourth opera where this writer has seen Mr. Flórez paired with Ms. Damrau. (The others: Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Fille du regiment, and Le comte Ory.) They are a pair of consumnate professionals, generating great stage chemistry as the duelling lovers. As Adina, Ms. Damrau sang with a silvery, slightly dry tone that went down like a fine white wine, opening up her instrument at one point for a searing, silver note above the stave.

Mariusz Kwiecien was the perfect foil as Belcore, the puffed-up soldier who tries to draft Nemorino for the army and nearly marries Adina. His relentless skirt-chasing might have been a hangover from last fall's Don Giovannni. The Polish bari-hunk played the corporal for laughs, indulging in mis-coordinated marches with his troops and strutting across the stage like a Gilbert & Sullivan character. The best part of his night: a funny and very physical "Venti scudi" duet with Mr. Flórez.

It's hard to imagine this production without veteran baritone Paul Plishka as Dr. Dulcamara. But as Mr. Plishka retired in January of this year, the role was taken by the capable comic bass Alessandro Corbelli. It was a pleasure to hear "Udite, udite, o rustici" delivered with rich voice and a chuckle underneath the quack medicine spiel. And unlike Mr. Plishka, Mr. Corbelli chose to sing the "Gondolier duet" with his rich, natural voice. This made the final scene of the opera (which uses the same melody) sound even better. 

The 2012-2013 Met season is scheduled to open with a new production of Elisir by director Bartlett Sher. Mr. Sher's production, which will star Anna Netrebko as Adina, will probably use wooden acting surfaces and some form of theatrical artifice to make the giant Met stage better suited to Donizetti's rural comedy. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.

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