Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as Adina in Act 2 of the Met's new "L'Elisir D'Amore" directed by Bartlett Sher. (Photo : Metropolitan Opera)
I would like to preface this article by stating that this is not intended to be a review but simply a reaction to the dress rehearsal I was present for of the Met's new production of Gaetano Donizetti's "L'Elisir D'Amore." I refrain from considering this a review for a number of reasons. First off, I will make many comments on the singers (which were all excellent) because this was a rehearsal and they were not singing at an hour optimal to their voices. As such I will focus mainly on addressing my reaction to Bartlett Sher's new production which will open the season this coming Monday September 24. But bear in mind that since this is a rehearsal any comments I make on what I saw may very well be altered or changed by the time Monday rolls around.
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As stated by General Manager Peter Gelb, "L'Elisir" represents the first time in his now seven year tenure as manager that the reputable opera company opens with a comedy. An exquisite "Madama Butterfly," a strong "Lucia Di Lamermoor," a gala dedicated to singer Renee Fleming, "Tosca," a unique new production of "Das Rheingold," and "Anna Bolena" were the opening nights of the Gelb period. All of these nights showcased dramatic works that in some ways emphasized the splendor of opera.
But now comes a comedy, an everyman's story of a shy lover who wants THE girl in town but she plays to hard to get. The story plays out like everyone's favorite romantic comedy, but with delightful music. It should be a fun night at the opera with the right singers and production.
And Met veteran director Bartlett Sher does right by Donizetti and librettist Felice Romani. The story is not translated to any other time period, there are no strange plot alterations or insertion of new dialogue, etc. The work has been respected and kept in its time and place.
The sets are absolutely gorgeous and rich in detail. Sher has an archway downstage that remains throughout the performance with the scenes visible through this arch. The first scene takes place in a plaza that is filled with trees, a shop, a table, an archway in the back through which soldiers march through. After the Adina-Nemorino duet, the curtain comes down and after a brief pause we are introduced to a village street which is easily the visual highlight of the production. On both sides are replicas of 19th century villages. A fruit stand is located on stage right while stage left has some patios outside what may be homes or shops. In the background is a backdrop of a church.
Act 2's visuals are not as vivid or fulfilling as Act one's but they more than suffice. The first scene starts indoors of what seems to be a wooden hotel (it looks like a barn as well). Whatever the case may be the set is very spacious and open. During the second Adina-Dulcamara duet, Sher takes his first and only transitional misstep by having other characters set up the next scene which is a field with high grass. The real brilliance of this scene is in the lighting. Nemorino sings his "Furtiva Lagrima" at night and during the course of his confrontation with Adina, the sunrises in the most subtle of manners.
Sher's direction of the action is a bit misleading but hardly detrimental. By the end of the performance I was satisfied that this was a good "Elisir" but hardly the groundbreaking interpretation I was guessing at in my mind during the course of watching Act 1. I have heard and seen the opera countless times, but had never realized how dramatic the music of the overture was. Sher's staging even gave it an air of tragedy. The main curtain between the archway shows the image of a desert; a strange image for such a light work. Then Nemorino trudges in front of this arch and painting and takes a seat at a lonely bench on stage left as the dramatic charge of music roars through the theater. It did not look like this was a comedy at all.
As the music regained its lightness, the desert image fades and we start to make out the townspeople. But then a question entered my mind: Is this Nemorino's dream? Or a flashback? Was Nemorino's destiny that of loneliness? I was intrigued by how this might play out. The direction supported this tragic notion as the remainder of Act one maintained a rather dark complexity. Belcore's seduction of Adina is aggressive and domineering (with a hint of brutality). The women in the town seem afraid of the soldiers who in other productions seem friendly, but here seem as if they are taking over the town. With Dulcamara, Sher brings in two silent characters in the form of Dulcama's assistants. Both are suspicious looking characters and during the second half Dulcamara's monologue, they are giving out shotguns to the townspeople while the charlatan distracts the soldiers and townspeople. Who were those people and why were they giving guns to the townspeople? Might we have a revolution on our hands? To use a cliché, the plot thickens. Then Dulcamara and those two assistants seem intent on running away unnoticed while Nemorino annoys Dulcama about the Elixir. And in the final scene of the first Act, Nemorino takes a brutal beating from Belcore and his soldiers that awkwardly counterpoints the joyous music that finishes the act. But it made the work engaging and opened up a number of possibilities for Act 2.
But alas, Sher did not address any of the issues I mentioned regarding Act 1. At one point Dulcamara points a gun at Belcore as if to kill him but it is the last time that this tension is ever mentioned or explored. The guns given out to the townspeople never come back and the desert image seems to be nothing more than an expression of Nemorino's emotional emptiness at the start of the opera. That final note ultimately works well considering that he and Adina make love in a field full of grass and the empty landscape that was expressed at the start is redefined by the flowering love between the two. However, it seemed like a missed opportunity on Sher's part considering how intriguing the elements he introduced in Act one were. I will state that Act 2 is far more comic than Act 1 as Sher is more content to let the libretto, music, and actors do the work. And this certainly makes up for any "plot holes" Sher creates.
All in all this is a great move by the Met as it will please the veteran conservative audience and will also attract newer audiences as well. There were a lot of high school students in attendance and as I walked out of the theater I heard an overwhelming number of positive responses from the students and older audiences alike. The critics may complain (and some will) that this is not all that different from the last production, but as an advocate of John Copley's now retired "Elisir," I will attest that this one is superior.
For more information on the schedule and tickets of L'Elisir D'Amore, check out the Met's website.
For more information on the singers and the production, click HERE.