Review: 'Elixir of Love' a Frothy Season Opener at Metropolitan Opera

Humor in Short Supply But Singing Mostly Stylish

Tuesday, September 25, 2012 - 09:30 AM

Anna Netrebko as Adina and Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino in Donizetti’s 'L’Elisir d’Amore' Anna Netrebko and Matthew Polenzani in Donizetti’s 'L’Elisir d’Amore' (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Considering that many Broadway musicals are more substantial than Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, the fluffy comic opera that opened the Metropolitan Opera’s season on Monday arrived with a bright cast and creative team likely to elevate its story of lovelorn simple folk beyond mere sweetness. Well, no rabbits were pulled from the hat (in this opera often nicknamed Don Pasquale’s country cousin), but the hat looked great, specifically, the top hat that soprano Anna Netrebko wore so roguishly onstage and was indicative of what the production was trying to do.

Like many Donizetti comedies, this one has the pathos of characters suddenly experiencing existential depths of disillusionment, embodied in Elixir by the famous aria “Una furtiva lagrima." But that’s not until the second act. The less-interesting first act in this new production by Bartlett Sher was played straight and literal, though with a serious undercurrent that could’ve been an interpretive choice or cast-dictated necessity. 

Nobody tried to be funny. Usually rustic innocents, Adina and Nemorino both came off as individuals past the usual marriage age and running out of time, the more worldly Adina claiming not to care (but marrying nearby Sgt. Belcore for expedient reasons) and Nemorino feeling desperately unloved. That way, the weightier mezzo-ish coloring that Netrebko now brings to this soubrette role made more sense. And though tenor Matthew Polenzani can look and sound convincingly young, he’s too substantial (remember, he’s best when singing lieder) to seem youthful. And however dashing he is, Mariusz Kwiecien (Belcore) showed no hidden comedic talents.

The production did have hugely fun moments such as when the corpulent Dr. Dulcamara (superbly sung and played by Ambrogio Maestri) emerged from a wagon that seemed rather smaller than he is, but he did so amid Michael Yeargan's elegiac sets, with the stage perpetually bathed in the colors of early evening. When the opera blossoms emotionally in Act II with the couple realizing how much they love each other, the setting was a picturesque open field with vivid Van Gogh coloring. Theatrical red herrings were evident, such as slow motion figures meandering in the background. But given some patience, the production was ultimately satisfying.

Musically, the opera needed a viewpoint stronger than that of conductor Maurizio Benini, though the deceptive vocal demands seemed fully understood. Given the opera’s period (1832), accomplished, stylish bel canto singing is required. But the point isn’t just to nail the notes. More than most Donizetti, vocal lines are in greater need of coloring and shaping for these fragile characters to come alive. Netrebko and Polenzani gave such important moments their full due with poetic, thoughtful singing. In fact, Polenzani’s vocal production is such that high notes didn’t ring out with the air of accomplishment but sounded like an organic part of the larger musical idea. Kwiecien has yet to sing thoughtfully (to my ears) but got the job done.

Such a medium-voltage showcase isn’t a likely choice for a new production opening a new season, but is likely to project its vision more confidently later in its run, especially without the trappings of Monday’s surreal opening night. On the big screens overlooking Lincoln Center and Times Square (where less gala-prone opera lovers can participate in the experience), Deborah Voigt and Renee Fleming coveted the Elixir roles as a break from their usual onstage crying and dying.

Meanwhile, one ornately dressed woman after another arrived on the red carpet entrance at Lincoln Center causing the paparazzi to erupt. At intermission, the more spectacular dress wearers turned operagoers into paparazzi by posing in the lobby for pictures. However, nobody seemed to know who these people were. "Isn't she Rachel Weisz? The one married to that James Bond guy?" murmured one. Could be, but she wasn’t on the official celebrity guest list that did include Martha Stewart (a regular) but also rockers Courtney Love and super-serious Patti Smith, whom I looked for at intermission with hopes of assuring her that the Met isn’t usually this silly.

View a slideshow from the red carpet:

Stephen Nessen/WQXR
Anna Netrebko and bass-baritone Erwin Schrott at the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
Knicks forward Amare Stoudemire at the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
A patron arrives on the red carpet at the Metropolitan Opera's opening night
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
The Met's performance of 'The Elixir of Love' was seen on the plaza at Lincoln Center
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
Fashion designer Austin Scarlett and soprano Lisette Oropesa arrive at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
Placido Domingo arrives at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
Courtney Love arrives at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
Actress Maggie Grace on the red carpet at the Metropolitan Opera's opening night gala
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
A patron arrives on the red carpet at the Metropolitan Opera's opening night
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
A patron arrives on the red carpet at the Metropolitan Opera's opening night
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
Patrons arrive on the red carpet at the Metropolitan Opera's opening night
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
Singer Sia Furler arrives on the red carpet at the Metropolitan Opera's opening night
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
Patrick Stewart arrives at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
Rob Thomas of the band Matchbox Twenty arrives at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
Patti Smith and her daughter Jesse Smith arrive at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
Opening night at the Met Opera in Times Square (Center: WQXR host Nimet Habachy)
Stephen Nessen/WQXR
Opening night at the Met Opera in Times Square

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Comments [5]

AF from Long Island

Thanks to CoolObserver for the comments posted Sept. 28. I agree completely! It's sad.

Sep. 29 2012 12:42 PM

Sadly, I felt the evening was a success just because Mr. Gelb did not make it one of his monstrous disasters. Frankly, Sher actually did a kind of Zeffirelli "light," avoiding his last mistake of extending the stage into the audience, thus badly and irresponsibly dampening the sound. I too felt the review here by D.P. Sterns was simplistic, shallow and had no insights and was about as silly as he pronounced the infrequent occasion to dress anywhere, never mind the Met. Let it be a glamorous sideline, the world can use a little real glamour instead of two bit trashy showoffs in the media.
Two nights later at Zeffirelli's Turandot the excitement, performances and applause actually outdid opening night considerably and presented one of the few breathtaking Grand Opera productions worthy of the name that the Met still has, no thanks to Mr. Gelb. Has anyone else wondered why his attack has been to destroy some of the greatest productions of The Met only to substitute consistently inferior, if not downright vulgar interpretations? I will never go to the current Tosca, Traviata, Ring and many others again, no matter who is singing, until they create some decent visuals as I just will not pay for or even be exposed to such trash, euro or not. Friends have even offered free tickets, but these productions are such an affront to grand opera's drama, spectacle and most importantly, authenticity that happily I can and do go elsewhere.
I do not want to be unfair to Mr. Gelb. He makes great opera movies, just not great opera performances. I like the HD idea very much and think it is great for many reasons, but you can make a production look great on film when most of them have been pretty shoddy in the house, if not gross. I mean, I would have chosen some new productions of opera never seen or not seen for many years to demonstrate a new administration's competence rather than to prove their incompetence, bad taste and poor judgement so convincingly by destroying the best they have. Someone suggested it was an effort to eliminate the grand old productions which show up the thin, mostly misplaced new efforts. Or to give the tired, bored and jaded critics something to wake them up and get excited about. The NYCOPera seems to have gotten the idea that this is the new way, and they certainly are losing supporters and attendees even faster than the Met. Talked to a trustee o f The Met who said she stood up when Gelb was dumping on Turandot and said, "When Turandot goes, I go!" Sybil Harrington and her millions would have heartily agreed!!! And so do many of us who have supported the Met for many years. We too want new audiences, but not dumbed down, inappropriate or sensationalistic productions which will not sustain or build new audiences attracted just for controversy or iconoclasm.

Sep. 28 2012 05:56 PM
Tony (Anthony) Verruso from Weeping over the grave of Rudolph Bing

Dear WQXR,

I was there last night.... Was your reviewer?

I am a little shocked at the paltry, vapid and frankly uneducated approach this reviewer takes here.

Where is the insight? Where is the opinion -any opinion?

Has Mr. Gelb terrified WQXR so completely that critical thinking (hell, thinking - in general) has completely left the building?

He never mentions Matthew Polenzani’s star making moment in “Una Furtiva Lagrmia”? A moment where the audience and the singer breathed as one. Mr. Polenzani leapt on to the tenor” A list” last night. Did your reviewer sense that or was he too overwhelmed by seeing Courtney Love on the red carpet to notice?

He mentions the Conductor but fails to mention the Conductor's biggest issue was not that he needed “ a stronger viewpoint"....but that the man couldn’t keep time.

He doesn’t mention how Anna Netrebko’s has more charisma in one finger than most movie stars have in their whole bodies. He fails to note the opulence, richness and size of her voice or her often touching characterization. Miss. Netrebko is now the hitching post to which Mr. Gelb has lassoed his entire regime (I meant wagon) on. This is important to note. Does your reviewer know who Peter Gelb is?

Or is that the problem? Perhaps everyone at WQXR knows Mr. Gelb all too well.

This is possibly one of the brighter nights to come out of the Gelb administration. A minor triumph, of sorts, but a triumph – none the less.

Is it verboten to even mention THAT?

The writer instead wastes an entire final paragraph on who was on the red carpet as if he was at the premiere of the new Miley Cyrus film. (An event, I suspect, Mr. Stearns would rather have been at)

Yes, Mr. Stearns, Red carpets are like totally awesome. There’s a ton of red carpet events in Los Angeles.

Perhaps Los Angeles is the place for you, Mr. Stearns.

…and perhaps WQXR should man up.

Sep. 25 2012 02:10 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

Listening with full score allowed me to avoid witnessing the staging, which, having read about it, I'd preferred not to see in any case. For me, the tempo of the Prelude set the tone for the evening: rushed and forced for the most part, though "un po' del suo corragio...", "Obbligato ah! si' obbligato" and the end of Act I felt just right. What really got on my nerves to the point of distraction was the decision to have the strings play a decrescendo after the first half of a sequence was played, as in "Ai perigli, della guerra", rather than the same dynamic. It was maddening since it was done almost always in passages marked "Larghetto". The most satisfying of the soloists to my ears were Dr. Dulcamara, followed closely by Nemorino. I felt Belcore sounded coarse on this opening night. I hardly heard Gianetta at all either with the chorus as in the Introductory Chorus or in her solo about Nemorino's uncle dying and the former becoming rich. ("Saria possibile?") The timbre of Adina is just too opulent for my taste; and triplets were rendered as dotted eighth and sixteenth notes on one occasion. I've been delighted with this artist's interpretations of other roles, but not this one. On the plus side, It was a delight to hear many of the standard cuts opened, though many of them were truncated probably for reasons of running time restrictions. Most of the recitative was intact; and I'm all in favor of the piano being used rather than a harpsichord in a theatre the size of the Metropolitan Opera House, the earliest example of which in my experience is the Sayao-Tagliavini-Baccaloni performance in 1947 conducted by Giuseppe Antonicelli.

Sep. 25 2012 01:08 PM
Alex from New York City

All I care is that the director did not turn the characters into white mice!

Sep. 25 2012 12:37 PM

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