Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore

Glyndebourne Festival

Glyndebourne, 25 August 2011 4 stars

Danielle de Niese as Adina (Photo © Bill Cooper)Annabel Arden's production for Glyndebourne of Donizetti's 1832 comic masterpiece was first seen with Glyndebourne on Tour in 2007: it then came to the main stage in 2009, and was revived again this year with a new and promising cast. The production has worn well – the single set is attractive, gives space and ambiance to the performers, and all the effects work. Well, almost all – at the family performance that I attended (£30 seats for the young novitiates) there was the odd technical mishap, but it somehow added to the fun of a thoroughly heart-warming, lively performance of an almost foolproof stage vehicle. 'Are all operas this funny?' was the question posed by an eight-year old attending Glyndebourne for the very first time.

Aside from Adina, to whom we shall come, the key role in good performances of Elisir is that of Nemorino, the shy, love-struck village boy who has to resort to a Bordeaux elixir to promote the love match he seeks. Glyndebourne did not have much luck with their casting this year, the highly promising American tenor Stephen Costello being struck down with tonsillitis and having to withdraw halfway through the run. But by 28 July a solution had been found, and what a minor miracle it proved to be: Leonardo Capalbo stepped into the role and made it absolutely his own. He proved to have a clean, open tenor sound, effortless technique (or so it seemed) and he produced some lovely bel canto. What is more, Capalbo had mastered that difficult stage trick of making shyness seem attractive and positive as well as amusing: in his movement and stage reaction he reminded me at times of a young Chico Marx! Una furtiva lagrima was lovely and got its deserved ovation. It was a very assured performance – Glyndebourne should invite him back.

Opposite him the first lady of Glyndebourne, Danielle de Niese, played the confident heroine of the piece, Adina. Indulgence was craved before the curtain rose: de Niese was suffering from food poisoning but had agreed to go ahead. In the event, the announcement need never have been made – if she can sing and act like this when suffering, it is hard to imagine how much better she might be when on top form (although she did appear utterly exhausted at the end). Glyndebourne audiences know how well de Niese moves and how expertly she projects personality. Her Adina is absolutely on top of things throughout the piece, strutting her stuff in jacket and trousers after a day's shooting in Act One, becoming much more girly and feminine as Nemorino's attractions dawn on her towards the end. De Niese's voice is ideal for the house: she uses vibrato very sparingly and she works her socks off ‘delivering' Adina's lines. I find her voice has filled out a bit since her first, triumphant appearance as Cleopatra at Glyndebourne: her high notes resounded over full ensemble and orchestra in the two act finales. Hers was a hugely enjoyable performance.

Paolo Gavanelli as Dr Dulcamara (Photo © Bill Cooper)As Belcore, I found Rodion Pogossov disappointing. The voice is medium sized but lacks distinguishing features and, above all, vocal warmth and projection. As a sing-through of the role it was all perfectly adequate but Pogossov failed to seize any of his vocal moments – as a result, the part was under-characterised. This was a missed opportunity.

But into that space stepped Paolo Gavanelli as Dr Dulcamara (unbelievably making his Glyndebourne debut!) His performance was a delight from start to finish, not only in terms of his stage presence (helped by a hyperactive assistant with a bag of tricks, played by James Bellorini) but above all in terms of class singing. Gavanelli's voice fills much larger theatres than the Glyndebourne auditorium: as a result he sang – gloriously – within himself, projecting humour, vocal colour, nuance, in a warm bath of top quality baritonal sound. The stage lit up whenever Gavanelli made his appearance.

Presiding over a lively Glyndebourne chorus, in excellent form, and an alert London Philharmonic Orchestra, who played throughout with verve and panache, was conductor Enrique Mazzola. In the spirit of the evening he appeared to be greeted at the start of each act with cries of 'rhubarb' from the pit, but he soon silenced any hecklers: I do not think I have ever heard Elisir taken at quite such a breathless pace before. Yet there was more to the playing and phrasing than sheer speed – Mazzola knew exactly the exuberant dynamic that he wanted the piece to enjoy, but he shaped the orchestral phrasing with as much delicacy in parts as sheer aplomb in others. There are tricky moments in Elisir ensembles when players and singers can part company, and once or twice it nearly happened, but Mazzola had clearly rehearsed and prepared his ensemble to know exactly what to expect, and they nearly always kept with him. The result? Well, and especially for the many young people in the audience, the opera simply flashed by (helped by a biggish cut in the second act) and by the end it seemed like a short, but highly enjoyable evening.

And so it was. This L'Elisir d'Amore is sheer, uncomplicated opera fun, in a slick production that does justice to the well-crafted opera that it is. I doubt we have seen the last of it on the Sussex Downs.

By Mike Reynolds

Photos © Bill Cooper