Tony-winning director Bartlett Sher gave the Met a hit with his production of Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” six seasons ago. He and most of his creative team have now been reunited by the Met for another bel canto comic opera, and it’s a pretty sure bet that Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love)” will also prove a crowd-pleaser. Sher’s production, while not particularly insightful, is certainly serviceable. Boosted by a starry cast of real singing actors, the season-opening premiere left the packed house cheering.
“L’Elisir d’amore”‘s setting was specified in the original libretto as “a small village in the Basque country,” but more often than not stagings of it have been set in Italy. Sher specifically chooses to place his version in an Italian village in 1836, four years after the opera’s creation, when the Risorgimento was gathering steam and Italy was close to fighting for its independence. The politico-historical complexity Sher is straining for here doesn’t add as much depth as he had hoped, but it does not really get in the way, either.
Looking backward to commedia dell’arte and forward to 1930s Hollywood screwball comedy, “L’elisir d’amore” is a relatively simple tale of a lovesick young peasant determined to win the heart of a village beauty several social and financial stations above him. When a traveling quack doctor dupes him into buying a “love potion” that is merely cheap wine, he nearly loses the girl in his buffoonishly drunken pursuit of her, until she realizes that she has loved him all along. None of the opera’s leading characters are particularly intelligent or appealing individuals, but Donizetti’s bouncy, lyrical score fills in the emotional blanks and makes us care — as does the fine cast in this production.
Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is the superstar attraction here in what she claims will be one of the last of her bel canto roles. Netrebko’s voice (and figure) have increased in amplitude since she had a child a few years ago and she is heading toward heavier roles, with some Wagner and Tchaikovsky already inked into her schedule. For now, it’s a pleasure to hear a voice of such fruity richness singing a part which is more often the province of chirpy coloratura sopranos. Although she began the opening performance with pitch problems (not helped by the often erratic tempi of conductor Maurizio Bennini), she soon warmed up and displayed thrilling top notes, some surprisingly agile vocal ornamentation and a characterization that emphasized a streak of barely-suppressed lustiness.
Catherine Zuber’s costuming could have been kinder to her; for some scenes she was made to look like a serving wench, and for much of the opera she sported a top hat whose meaning remained a mystery.
Tenor Matthew Polenzani gave a benchmark performance as her suitor Nemorino, acting with great charm, spinning out lines of silky, elegant tone and stopping the show with a masterful rendition of the opera’s well-known tune “Una furtiva lagrima.” Mariusz Kwiecien played his rival, Sergeant Belcore, with scene-stealing, sexy swagger, though he sounded a bit small in the company of the larger-voiced Polenzani and Netrebko.
Baritone Ambrogio Maestri was Dr. Dulcamara, a role usually sung by a bass. But his focused timbre and expert Italian delivery — not to mention his outsize comic presence — were made to order for this part. In the brief soubrette role of Giannetta, Anne-Carolyn Bird sang sweetly but did not leave a strong impression.
Michael Yeargan’s pastel sets, looking somewhat on the economical side, framed the action well without drawing undue attention. They should easily accommodate the many cast changes that this production will undoubtedly see over the years. Aside from the unflattering outfits for Netrebko, Zuber’s costume designs were apt and eye-catching, particularly for the chorus in Act Two.
The Met will air the October 13 matinee performance live in HD to movie theaters in the U.S. and around the world.