Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore in Rome,
enjoyed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
enjoyed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Gaetano Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore is one of the favorite staples of the repertoire, as judged by both opera managers and audience. It requires only a few singers and can work well even with a simple stage set which can be easily transferred from theatre to theatre. It has several well-known arias, easy to remember and hum, even though some of the musical numbers are impervious and require excellent and very skilled voices. There is, however, a misunderstanding about the core of the work. Several opera guidebooks — eg the centennial world famous The Complete Opera Book by Gustav Kobbé and the more recent Gerhart von Westerman's Opera Guide — treat L'elisir d'amore as a comic opera or even an opera buffa; they purport that, during the decades when Donizetti and his operas were nearly forgotten, L'elisir never left the repertory, at least in secondary or Provincial Italian theatres, because it is pure comedy with two hilarious characters (Dulcamara and Belcore) and a sweet young couple as well as a comparatively easy orchestration.
Even now, L'elisir is often staged as pure entertainment, with emphasis on Dulcamara's chattering parlando, on Belcore's swaggering, on the sweetness of Nemorino and on Adina's tricks. The fifth character, Giannetta, has a very minor role, both musically and dramatically. Nonetheless, L'elisir is called, by its very authors, 'melodramma giocoso', which means a semi-serious opera like Rossini's La Gazza Ladra, Paisiello's Nina Pazza per Amore, Mayr's Lodoiska and Bellini's La Sonnambula. This was a category of musical theatre very popular at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Donizetti composed several semi-seria operas like Linda di Chamonix and Il Furioso nell'Isola di San Domingo.
This category of operas pleased the audience during difficult times (wars, revolutions, social and political turmoil) because it combines drama with comic relief. It is a very hard balance to reach for all the stakeholders involved in producing L'elisir because the dramatic and comic elements are carefully mixed, indeed intertwined. In L'elisir there is even irony — eg Belcore's cavatina, or entrance aria, Come Paride Vezzoso, is clearly a parody of the Metastasian opera seria then still performed in several Italian theatres. In my opinion, among the characters, the only clear-cut buffo is the pompous Dulcamara. The more charming, and relatively easy, opening arias Quanto è bella and Chiedi all'Aura Lusinghiera lead the way to progressive escalation to the two final heights — Nemorino's terrific Una Furtiva Lacrima and Adina's short but very dense rondo Il mio rigor dimentica.
The main asset of the L'elisir produced in Rome (and seen and heard on the 8 May 2014 opening night) is that both the musical and stage directions keep the proper balance between drama and comedy required in a melodramma giocoso. It is not a wholly new production. The dramaturgy is the product of the work of a Neapolitan team (Ruggero Capuccio, stage direction, Nicola Rubertelli, sets, Carlo Poggioli, costumes and Agostino Angelini, lighting) and has been conceived for travelling: very simple props and painted curtains and on-stage gags and even tightrope walkers and clowns but gentle colors with a prevalence of pale blue and white. It was seen originally in Rome in February 2011; since then, the farce aspects have been underplayed and more emphasis has been placed on the sentimental side. A better balance, in my opinion, than that in the much applauded staging by Damiano Michieletto seen in Valencia and Palermo (Read Mixed Feelings, 17 June 2012).
The musical direction is entrusted to the well-known veteran Donato Renzetti. However, in L'elisir, the real pudding is the singing and acting. Here, the Teatro dell'Opera made the choice to rely on young singers: Rosa Feola as Adina, Antonio Poli as Nemorino, Alessandro Luongo as Belcore, Adrian Sampetrean as Dulcamara and Damiana Mizzi as Giannetta — a good group, able to sing and act effectively. All have the promise of great careers.
Nonetheless, Antonio Poli was a coup de théâtre himself. He is young; in the 2011 Salzburg Whitsun festival, he was just out of school and was appreciated in the rarely performed Mercadante opera I Due Figaro. In Rome, I saw and heard him as Samuel in Nabucco (with Riccardo Muti in the pit). In the 2011 staging of L'elisir, he was Nemorino in the second cast. He has grown in both acting and singing to be perfect for the role. In the key aria Una Furtiva Lacrima, he gave the audience a marvelous (and difficult) B flat in the first part, a resounding high C in the second, and a moving B natural at the end, as well excellent phrasing and high class legato singing.
His voice is a beautiful and delicate instrument. He must resist the temptation to take up roles (eg Duca di Mantova in Rigoletto) which may spoil it. There are almost no Italian lyric tenors on the market. Poli should restrict his repertory to Donizett, Bellini and Rossini. He has a golden opportunity to become the best in this area.