This first Covent Garden revival of Laurent Pelly's production of L'elisir d'amore highlighted some of the weaknesses of this specific reading of Donizetti's fine melodramma giocoso.
On the other hand, discrepancies in the invasive stage direction were compensated for by first class performances from Diana Damrau and Simone Alaimo and by a handful of genuinely humorous situations. This contrast makes it hard not to hesitate when faced with this interpretation.
The decision to update Donizetti's setting to an Italian rural town in the 1950s-60s is not problematic in itself. But the pyramid of hay bales, looming over the stage as the curtain rises, is. In fact, this set, designed by Chantal Thomas, seems at times to obscure both the singers' efforts and the dramatic action. In particular, the comic possibilities of the latter were explored without leaving space for the darker undertones and lyricism that the story still demands.
However, drama re-emerges from behind the hay bales as the chorus of villagers gradually conquers the scene. When they become part of the picture, dramatic equilibrium is reached: the audience finally has the space to be receptive to the non-visual sides of the performance. Praise is due to chorus master Renato Balsadonna: the chorus always sounded convincing and lively. Their pianissimo gossiping made for a picturesque, if exoticized, portrayal of a rural Italian environment.
In the opening scene, Diana Damrau appears lying on the hay coquettishly. The class difference between her and her humble suitor Nemorino goes unmentioned in her portrayal. Nevertheless, it is Damrau's interpretation that makes this Elisir worth the trip to the opera house. She made the best of the dramatic nuances that the role requires. What is more, the purity and brightness of her voice stood out, conferring to her Adina shades of a more classical style. Her manipulation of the dynamics was firm and precise, and her coloratura passages were impeccable.
Despite the fact that there were some moments in which the musical tension dropped, Bruno Campanella's masterful reading of the score reflected the same energetic flexibility of Damrau's interpretation. When the soprano was engaged in dialogue with the orchestra, the piece resounded most effectively.
In Pelly's reading, lyricism seems to be rigorously eradicated. Anxious to exploit all the comic aspects of Donizetti's work, this production is trapped in a hyperbolically farcical web. In particular, Giuseppe Filianoti's Nemorino is problematic: he is not a simple country boy yearning after the object of his affection. In this context, he is rather reminiscent of a clumsy caricature of the village fool; his gestures and mimicry are pushed to an extreme, and his acting in relation to any other character is always clownish - sometimes without reason.
Filianoti's interpretation suffered strongly from this characterisation. In addition, too often he showed signs of vocal uncertainties; his tone was at times moving, but never entirely convincing. Even his cathartic moment, 'Una furtiva lagrima', was interpreted in a farcical attitude that tore apart the elegiac cloak surrounding this aria, when we are finally faced with the protagonist giving voice to his inner melancholy. Not even suggestive stars delicately appearing in the background could make up for the lack of grace of this reading, redolent of a maladroit Chaplin.
Yet again, it was Damrau's Adina that compensated for a certain lyricism and elegance lacking in Filianoti's performance. Trying to persuade Nemorino not to enlist in the army, she took up the suave and smooth lines that had by then mostly characterised the young man's part, imbruing them with the very pathos we might have hoped for in the tenor's rendition. Adina's shy 'Resta' - 'stay' - which secretly conveys her affection for her suitor - was a masterpiece of delicate reticence.
Simone Alaimo's Doctor Dulcamara matched Damrau's charisma and technical precision. In fact, the scene with the two alone together on stage revealed itself to be the most effective of the whole night. Then, finally humour and emotion met, together with a convincing vocal interpretation. Alaimo made his Dulcamara a solid figure that won the audience's sympathy. Thanks to his vocal characterization, witty and agile, his portrayal of the travelling charlatan was the most genuinely comic of this whole production.
Less credible was Anthony Michaels-Moore as Sergeant Belcore, although both vocal and dramatic possibilities were exploited more and more as the performance went on. His self-indulgence and lingering on his status to win over opponents in war and in love grew convincingly during the second act.
If the production explored L'elisir's humorous aspects to their full potential, it was nonetheless at the cost of many other elements of the opera. In particular, the avariciousness in the story was understated; after all, money is the true elixir, even if Adina finally chooses humble Nemorino. Oddly enough, the only dark element of this production was the sky in the background: the reasoning behind the cloudy horizon, while Vespas and bikes run in country lanes, was not entirely clear to me.
All in all, this Elisir provided for an enjoyable evening, and there were moments of first-rate singing. But is that enough? While much was added, something else seemed to be lost along the path of re-elaboration of this multifaceted work.
Photos credits: Johan Persson
Interview with Diana Damrau, who plays Adina in this production
interview with Anthony Michaels-Moore, who plays Belcore in this production
Review of this production's first staging at Covent Garden
CD Review of Donizetti's Imelda de' Lambertazzi (Opera Rara)