The unfortunate departure of Rolando Villazón from The Royal Opera's new production of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore left the company with a logistical headache. The twenty-eight year old Italian tenor Stefano Secco was already to have sung in a couple of performances and took over on opening night (as discussed in our full review here) and for most of the run, but Russian tenor Dmitri Korchak took over for last night's performance and will appear again on 29 November.
Although lacking a little in personality and strength of projection, Korchak turned out to be one of the few impressive elements of a surprisingly disappointing evening. He has a sweet, unforced voice, rhythmic precision and blissfully secure tuning. These are essential qualities for the bel canto, which relies so heavily on classicism. Having originated the role of Nemorino in this production in Paris in September, Korchak seemed secure with the part, and I can only see him growing in aptitude as time goes on.
However, the only truly excellent performance came from Paolo Gavanelli as Dulcamara. His strong projection, firm tone, a sense of style and real stage presence showed nearly everyone else up. Aleksandra Kurzak was curiously charmless as Adina; I find her voice lacking in the Italianate quality of great exponents of this role on record (such as Mirella Freni) and she had serious tuning issues at the top of her range. Ludovoc Tézier is not quite my idea of Belcore and does not quite have the smooth legato needed for this lyric part, but otherwise I felt convinced by the beauty of his sound and the confidence with which he attacked the part. Jette Parker Young Artist Kishani Jayasinghe's stylish Giannetta deserves special mention.
For me, the less said about Laurent Pelly's utterly banal, emotionally vapid, humourless production the better. His approach to this repertoire seems simply to impose cheap gags onto comically imaginative texts whose inherent wit is lost in the process; thankfully, it's harder to mess around with L'elisir d'amore than it is with La Fille du regiment (Pelly's over-rated previous production at Covent Garden), whose spoken texts are an open invitation to chop and change. Still, the opera has suffered, and you know a director has struggled to find something to say about it when the best he can do in the way of humour is have a dog run across the stage at the end of several scenes or have Dulcamara arrive in a van equipped with Las Vegas-style flashing lights and sparklers in a feeble attempt to spice things up. There was little laughter and muted applause for the performance, whereas it can be heart-warming and extremely funny in the right hands. For me, the most unintentionally amusing aspect of the evening was the sight of the bizarrely pyramid-shaped haystack in the opening scene, which would probably have been a better setting for ENO's new Aida than the company down the road was able to provide!
It was fascinating to see that Finnish conductor Mikko Franck had completely reversed his approach in this opera compared to his method of conducting Tosca earlier this year. Whereas the Puccini found the orchestra loud, fast, exciting and gestural, here the Donizetti was dull, apologetically quiet and rather slow. A huge disappointment after the excitement of Tosca - and as a whole, I thought the evening was rather second rate.