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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Opera Review: Uncorked

A substitute soprano shines in L'Elisir d'Amore.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A new vintage: Andriana Chuchman as Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
The big story in the Metropolitan Opera's current revival of L'Elisir d'Amore is the absence of Anna Netrebko from the first two performances. With the Russian diva out with the flu, it fell to soprano Andriana Chuchman to step up and make an early Met debut. On Monday night, in the second of her two scheduled substitutions, Ms. Chuchman proved herself to be one of the memorable new talents taking the stage this season--and a testament to the Met's ability to have quality backups in place in case a singer becomes unavailable.

The company's still-new production of this opera was created last year for Ms. Netrebko, Ms. Chuchman had her work cut out for her. She responded with sweet, slightly crisp tone, bright and true in the upper register and yet with a rich amabile body that proved satisfying to the ears. (It is that latter quality, wisdom and sensuality that combine to make Adina so attractive to poor Nemorino.) Whether moving nimbly through the difficult ornamentation or singing with light-footed sarcasm in the Act I ensembles, this was a complex, fully realized portrait.

Things got better in the second act as Adina's icy heart began to melt. Her two duets with Dulcamara (Erwin Schrott) revealed unexpected depths to her character. The final confrontation and reconciliation with Ramon Vargas' Nemorino was sung with joy, energy and great beauty. Ms. Chuchman's next appearance at the Met is in The Enchanted Island (originally her scheduled debut) and she may have great things in front of her in years to come.

Ms. Chuchman is new to the Met, but tenor Ramón Vargas is not. In fact, the singer sang his first Nemorino at the Met in 1998 as a substitute for an indisposed Luciano Pavarotti. The voice is not as pretty or remarkable as it was 16 years ago. However, Mr. Vargas holds fast to his fundamental technique and experience with the part to create an engaging, entertaining performance. The big aria "Una furtiva lagrima" was navigated expertly, with sweet, sustained notes at the end that could be a valuable lesson to any younger singers listening.

As Belcore, Simone Alaimo used his gruff baritone and bulk to play the character as a puffed-up bully who might just be outwitted and outmatched by the locals. Long on physical presence but lacking in charm, Mr. Alaimo threatened to burst his uniform as he wooed Adina and brutalized Nemorino. With Mr. Vargas, Mr. Alaimo delivered a snapping "Venti scudi" duet in the second act, although having Belcore accompanied by four silent soldiers made the whole number an exercise in intimidation.

Erwin Schrott was the Met's second Dulcamara last year, and he still plays the role of the quack Doctor with gusto. Adorned in a loopy Russell Brand wig adorned with a ridiculous feathered top hat and clothes out of a steampunk catalogue, he was energetic and professorial in "Uditti, o Rusticchi" aided by sprightly tempos from conductor Maurizio Benini. Each word of the text of this complex patter was clearly delivered. (For maximum comic impact, try following it with the Italian Met Titles.) He also continues to sing the "Senatore" scene with his full bass, a welcome change from the practice of adding a nasal accent to this scene.

Bartlett Sher's production of Elisir is in some ways like the company's old one--a series of cutouts and pretty postcards--and that is all to the good. However, Mr. Sher insisted on moving the opera to a specific place and time: northern Italy under the boot of the Austrian military at the start of the Risorgimento. Dr. Dulcamara is revealed to have a side business smuggling arms and ammunition to the locals, who are (presumably) under Adina's leadership. All this military build-up makes the presence of Belcore and his soldiers all the more unwelcome, adding an unnecessary tension to the opera. When this production is revived, Mr. Sher (or his house-selected replacement assistant director) should remember that Donizetti's gentle comedy is certainly not The Sicilian Vespers.

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