Some great operas take time to achieve popularity with audiences and critics. For example, Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” initially received hostile reviews and a lack of interest by the public. On the other hand, some works, such as Gaetano Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” (“The Elixir of Love”), are deemed irresistible from their opening and never lose their appeal.
Opening the Metropolitan Opera’s current season, a new production of the comic opera “L’Elisir d’Amore” is entrancing.
Donizetti (1797–1848) was extraordinarily prolific, composing over 60 operas, until syphilis caused his sudden decline and death. His most frequently performed operas, along with this one, are the dramatic “Lucia de Lammermoor” (with a famous “Mad Scene”); the comic “Don Pasquale”; and the historical drama, “Anna Bolena.”
Anna Netrebko, who has played the lead in all of these Donizetti operas is arguably the Met’s leading soprano. She stars on opening night this year, last year (with “Anna Bolena”) and is scheduled to begin the next season with “Eugene Onegin.”
“L’Elisir d’Amore” combines silly comedy with pangs of emotion. The plot concerns a young country bumpkin named Nemorino who is in love with the more intelligent Adina. She reads books and tells the villagers the story of how Tristan won the heart of Isolde by drinking a love potion.
When Dulcamara, a seller of fake medicines, arrives in town, he tricks the gullible Nemorino into buying an elixir. It is supposed to cure everything from boils to bed bugs but is really Bordeaux wine.
Meanwhile, Adina is being wooed by a narcissistic army officer, Sergeant Belcore. She agrees to marry the officer to get even with Nemorino, when he feigns indifference to her. The young man, needing cash to buy more of the potion, signs up for the army after Belcore offers him a bonus to volunteer.
After drinking the liquid, Nemorino finds that hordes of young women are pursuing him. While he thinks the reason is Dulcamara’s drink, in actuality word has spread that Nemorino has inherited a fortune from his recently deceased uncle.
Adina confesses her love to Nemorino, and the two finally unite. Belcore takes the rejection well, expressing his belief that many other women will swoon over his charms. Dulcamara takes credit for everything, from the satisfying romantic ending, to the young man’s inheritance.
In the program notes director Bartlett Sher claims that his new production stresses the political implications of the libretto by moving the action to a bit later (to 1836), to coincide with the Risorgimento (the drive for Italian independence). In his view, the locals are Italians and the soldiers, including Belcore, are Austrian.
I am not sure I buy his analysis, or that audience members who don’t read his statements will notice the supposed political content in this romantic comedy.
In any event, the production is handsome, with sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber. (My only question is why Adina wears a top hat in some of the scenes.)
The cast is certainly up to the vocal and dramatic demands of the opera. As always, Netrebko throws herself into the role of Adina with abandon and sings with a rich tone.
As Nemorino, tenor Matthew Polenzani is likeable and brings the house down with “Una Furtiva Lagrima” (the most famous aria in the opera).
Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien reprises the role of the conceited officer Belcore (which he played last season).
Most of the laughs are won by Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri as Dr. Dulcamara. The immense performer is a born clown and his bel canto singing is impeccable. (Those who want to catch him in one of his signature roles should pick up the Blu-ray DVD of Verdi’s “Falstaff,” filmed at the Zurich Opera House).
Maurizio Benini conducts “L’Elisir” with impeccable style.
Reservations: 212-362-6000 or visit metopera.org
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Closes: Runs intermittently through Feb. 9
Barry Bassis writes about music, theater, travel, and dining for various publications.