After last season's La Fille du régiment, Laurent Pelly returns to Covent Garden with L'elisir d'amore, a co-production with the Opéra National de Paris with set designs by Chantal Thomas. This production was another victim of the Royal Opera's misfortune regarding high-profile withdrawals and in a performance dedicated to Luciano Pavarotti, it's particularly unfortunate that they missed out on the star tenor, Rolando Villazon. In the event, Stefano Secco made a respectable Nemorino, fitting in to a well-drilled cast in which Aleksandra Kurzak's Adina and Paolo Gavanelli's Dulcamara were outstanding.
Pelly updates the opera to rural Italy some time around the 1960s. Much of the action takes place behind a bar on the roadside, we see crates piled up outside and the door to the gents'; youths pass lazily by on push-bikes and mopeds, languid curiosity and boredom force them to stop occasionally and watch the action unfold. At the centre of the opening scene is a pile of hay bales. Half way up, Adina suns herself in a pretty, low-cut, red and white dress. Rather than the slightly innocent coquette, she is fleshed out into a voluptuous, red blooded seductress. She might sing in the second act that 'la ricetta è il mio visio,/in quest'occhi è l'elisir', claiming her eyes and face are more powerful than any potion, but she's only too well aware of the power her other physical attributes exert over the opposite sex. Indeed, when Nemorino starts 'Quanto è bella', it is addressed more at Adina's backside, as she turns herself over on her improvised sun-lounger, than her eyes or face. And in their first duet, she cruelly taunts him by wiggling her various assets provocatively in his direction. Obviously no stranger to the screen goddesses of Italian cinema, she poses and pouts throughout the opera in a permanent quest for attention that goes some way to undermine our sympathy for her as a character.
It struck me that the staging looked to productions of verismo operas for inspiration (it reminded me on several occasions of Giancarlo del Monaco's recent Madrid Pagliacci), but the desire for realism fits ill with this work; although there might be genuine pathos there's very little in the way of a dark side to be exposed. The main problem with the interpretation comes with the characterisation of Nemorino. Secco plays him as nervy, twitchy, and a little unhinged. When Dulcamara gives him the elixir, there's no attempt to hide the fact that it's Bordeaux, he just picks up a wine bottle from his trailer. When the doctor sings that he's met a few fools in his time, but none quite like Nemorino, we can't help but agree. Although Nemorino should be a fool because of his infatuation and quaint gullibility, here he comes across as a genuine dullard. That, allied to his disconcerting nervousness, makes him into an unsympathetic character, dilutes his motivation and in turn undermines the drama. Pelly could have done well to read Pavarotti's own assessment of the character reprinted in the programme: 'Nemorino is half comic, half sad, just like life. His is also a simple country boy, yet he is not stupid.'
The direction of the chorus is likewise problematic. Pelly vacillates between trying to treat them as dramatically involved individuals and as a handy comic device. Bizarrely, in the opening scene they angrily confront the audience and seem almost to be on the point of lynching Nemorino. Elsewhere, Pelly resorts to cheap laughs in choreographing them as harmless yokels, prancing about, or coming together in formation with their newly acquired bottles of elixir. After the chorus's excited announcement of Dulcamara, he arrives in full Pagliacci-style - the back of his lorry opens up to provide a stage, replete with lighting effects organised by his lumbering assistants. However, as Dulcamara, Paolo Gavanelli sings most of his entrance aria to an empty stage, the 'rustici' who have spent five minutes excitedly announcing his arrival having now apparently lost interest and skulked off; for a while his only fleeting audience is a Jack Russell scampering across the stage. In isolation, these episodes are entertaining enough but they betray an ambivalent attitude towards this opera in particular and, it would seem, bel canto in general.
Dulcamara himself is presented as an established businessman. At scene changes we are left to admire a handsome front cloth showing advertisements for the various products of the Dulcamara brand, covering all possible ailments from impotenza to constipazione. The doctor himself turns up in a van painted in company livery. At the risk of sounding overly literal, though, this once again produces inconsistencies in the characterisation: quackery and big business aren't exactly natural bed-fellows. It seems like a minor detail but it was for me just one of many decisions which although stylishly executed added up to a rather disconcerting conception of the whole.
As already suggested, Secco's Nemorino is no world beater - his voice is a touch on the small and dry side - but he does sing touchingly, when he stops fidgeting. As Belcore, Ludovic Tézier is a handsome presence on stage, he sings strongly and acts the arrogant, uncaring soldier well. Jette Parker Young Artist, Kishani Jayasinghe, is an excellent Gianetta – her scene with the ladies of the chorus was a highlight.
The two stars of the evening, however, were Kurzak and Gavanelli. Kurzak's charming physical presence and natural acting ability were matched by a voice, used with style and taste, which struck a happy balance between lyrical beauty and athleticism. The fioritura was negotiated with ease, even if she tired a little towards the end of her final aria.
Those who know Gavanelli from his previous appearances at Covent Garden, most recently his astounding Rigoletto, might not have thought he'd make a natural Dulcamara. His acting skills, however, were here employed just as successfully in this role. He rose to the challenge set by the director of making Dulcamara more than a pure buffo character, portraying him as an unscrupulous businessman as well as something of a clown. Despite his lecherous and exploitative side, however, he remains likeable. Even when he succumbs to Adina's flirting in their second act duet, grabbing, groping and, at one point, slipping down his braces ready to pounce, he never quite loses his charm.
In the pit, Mikko Franck, who'd made such an impression at last season's Tosca, kept proceedings ticking along very nicely, showing an uncanny knack for finding a natural tempo and supporting his singers well, even if there was the occasional loss of ensemble.
On the whole, this is still an enjoyable evening out and well worth catching for Kurzak and Gavanelli alone. And there's plenty in the production to impress visually and much to enjoy as a series of stylishly assembled tableaux. However, Pelly's apparently uneasy relationship with the aesthetic code of bel canto prevents it from being fully convincing.
By Hugo Shirley