Royal Opera House, 28 November 2012
Enrico Caruso singing Una furtiva lagrima from this opera in his 1904 recording.
Magnificent singing, though the opera would probably work better without this aria!
A committed cast and engaging production make the most of this charming, almost flawless masterpiece.
L'elisir d'amore (the love potion) is an undemanding, charming comedy. I didn't find it funny, even in the experienced hands of original director Laurent Pelly and the director for this revival, Daniel Dooner. Comedy is extremely hard, and music comedy seems to be even harder.
The integration of music with a comic drama can heighten the mechanical sense of a farce, as in the zany, cruel operas of Rossini. It can also add emotional depth as in Mozart, with the sense that these are real people and that in real life, the drama would have the opposite of a happy ending. Sometimes it can heighten the actual humor, as in the works of Offenbach and his best librettists Halévy and Meilhac.
Most often, it is used to add charm and interest to what might be thin stuff in a non-musical drama. That is what happens here.
The composer is helped by a strong plot, adapted from that master of plotting Scribe by the talented Romani. Strong in the sense that the many implausibilities do not include anyone acting contrary to their estabilished character. The implausibilities are 'external'.
Nonetheless, a long unfunny comedy with just 5 singing characters, one of whom is extremely minor, could easily bore. Donizetti keeps everything tuneful and charming, while generally avoiding any attempt at pathos.
With one exception. The tenor aria Una furtiva lagrima, extremely famous at least since Caruso sang it so perfectly, is a misguided addition to the work. It is lachrymose and pointless, especially as the audience already knows that Nemorino has won Adina.
This overall economy of means has to rely on the chorus to achieve variety, and Pelly/Dooner excel in breathing life into these villagers, with judicious use of actors among the singers.
The chemistry between Adina and Nemorino is the other key to the success of this production. Clearly part of this is the director's skill, as it has worked with different singers, but this time round the interaction was noticeably improved, which is to the credit of Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna, respectively.
Alagna was completely convincing in his role, which might sound like a backhanded compliment as Nemorino is described by his rival Belcore as the village idiot, and is sometimes played like that. But this Nemorino was charming, energetic, playful and trusting, and finally generous towards Belcore.
Nothing in the libretto or score requires him to be an idiot; rather he is effectively crazed by hope, even if in the end his hope is rewarded. Mozart and da Ponte might have made more of that, and made us aware of the fallacies of hope, but that would be a very different work.
As the quack Dulcamara, Ambrogio Maestri reminded me of Verdi's Falstaff, and I don't think that is only because he is alarmingly corpulent. Impressively self-aware, to the point of admitting Adina is smarter than he is, and almost as credulous as the villagers when it seems his wine might actually work as a love potion. And then leading the villagers in a final chorus praising his elixir, which happens incidentally to praise wine.
I wasn't in the mood for a comic opera at the start of this evening. When I left Covent Garden, I was buzzing and cheerful.