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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Opera Review: Finding Nemorino

Anna Netrebko returns in L'Elisir d'Amore.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The guy behind her has a bigger hat: Anna Netrebko as Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera has revived its season-opening production of L'Elisir d'Amore for a few performances, giving more opera-goers a chance to see director Bartlett Sher's take on Donizetti's most famous comedy. (An earlier Superconductor review was of the opening night telecast, seen among the neon and bustle of Times Square.)

For no apparent reason, director Bartlett Sher refashions this opera buffa as a Verdi-esque clash between oppressive soldiers and would-be guerrilla fighters during the Risorgimento. As Dr. Dulcamara (Erwin Schrott) sells his brand of snake oil to the local peasants, his two assistants distribute single-action rifles from the back of his pushcart. The soldiers under Belcore's command are more threatening than usual, underlining the idea of political and personal tensions that will eventually erupt in violent revolution.

This production (seen Wednesday, Feb. 6) continues to revolve around its two leads, the inspired pairing of tenor Matthew Polenzani and star soprano Anna Netrebko. They both seem more comfortable in their roles, with the show-boating and jitters of opening night ditched in favor of a more natural style of comedy. There's a sweetness that wasn't there before in Ms. Netrebko's performance--she seemed more involved in the character even as she tossed off a virtuosic display of bel canto singing. Her tone was firm and assured in the big solo numbers yet rich and melting in her final duet with Nemorino.

In Mr. Sher's version of events, Nemorino becomes scholarly and sensitive, always poring over a text--hardly the case for a character who (as the libretto clearly points out) cannot write his own name. This is not a country bumpkin, but a shy, sometimes overwrought intellectual who does not know how to express his feelings without the aid of the titular elixir. Adina remains relatively unchanged, although Ms. Netrebko's fashion sense still includes the wealthy landowner sporting an inexplicable black top hat.

Mr. Polenzani continues to impress in this role, staking his claim as heir to the tradition of lyric tenor singing at the Met. The big lyric voice swelled at the right moments, surging into wells of romantic longing in "Quanto è bella" and in all of the character's moping in the first act. He was also an effective leading man in the second half of the opera, as Nemorino finds his feet and realizes that Adina loves him after all. The big dramatic passage at the center of "Una furtiva lagrima" had the requisite power and fullness of tone, and the pianissimo finale floated and hovered in a hushed atmosphere.

Mariusz Kwiecién's Belcore is unchanged, a strutting, brash bully who is always accompanied by a small and silent band of fellow soldiers. (They beat up Nemorino at the end of Act I.) He struggled with the extra proscenium arch added by Mr. Sher (in an effort to make the Met's cavernous stage seem more intimate) which tended to muffle his delivery at key moments. Mr. Schrott seemed to enjoy the big, swaggering part of Dulcamara, lending a satiric edge to "Udite, udite, o rustici" and a mannered tooth-whistle to the barcarolle. Not content with following in the footsteps of Ambrogio Maestri, Mr. Schrott creates his own version of this famous comic figure, with slight costume changes and a genuine charge to his Act II scenes with Ms. Netrebko. (Behind the scenes, these two singers are domestic partners.)

L'Elisir was an odd, lightweight choice to open the 2012-2013 Met season. Revived as part of the generale, the show seems much more relaxed, with choristers and orchestra contributing a much-needed sense of fun to the proceedings. Maurizio Benini, the current Donizetti specialist at the Met, led the ensemble with a light touch, balancing the orchestra and allowing the singers to overcome the awkwardness of that prosceium arch. Best of all, Mr. Benini allowed the singers to lead, giving the soloists room to extemporize in passages calling for vocal flourish.

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