Donizetti – L’Elisir d’Amore

ONP Bastille, Friday November 3, 2006

Conductor: Edward Gardner. Production and costumes: Laurent Pelly. Sets: Chantal Thomas. Adina: Heidi Grant Murphy. Nemorino: Charles Castronovo. Belcore: Laurent Naouri. Dulcamara: Alberto Rinaldi. Giannetta: Aleksandra Zamojska. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris.

Director Laurent Pelly has entertained Lyon and Paris with a string of successful comic opera productions (broken by Ariadne auf Naxos, the dud that proves the rule) now more widely known thanks to DVD: Orphée aux Enfers, La Belle Hélène, La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, Platée… His L’Elisir d’Amore exudes a freshness and youthful joie de vivre rarely experienced in the opera house, successfully reproducing the carefree atmosphere of Italian cinema in the 50s and 60s.

The simple sets – stacks of hay bales, one of them covered with tarpaulins held down with tyres; a patch of ground by a country crossroads, with a café and a lean-to housing plastic crates; a dance floor of planks and a string of bunting; fields rolling off into the distance and a lone electricity pylon or water tower – are bathed in a nostalgically golden light. The local kids – including Adina – buzz around on mopeds, scooters or bikes; Dulcamara arrives in a clapped-out lorry that opens out to reveal his “surgery” decked with tacky fairy lights; and Nemorino, under the influence of elixir, knocks down the bunting on his tractor.

There’s a wealth of cute detail – at one point, Dulcamara’s flow is interrupted by a Jack Russell terrier dashing across the full width of the stage – and there are moments of beauty: for Una furtive lagrima, bare light-bulbs descend on their wires against the night sky like teardrops or stars. The interval curtain is a fascinating sepia montage of 50s and 60s ads for quack medicines, all bearing the Dulcamara brand.

Adina and Nemorino are played very young, something Heidi Grant Murphy, in a little flowered dress, pink cardigan and flat shoes, carries off rather less well than the marvellously adolescent and gawky Charles Castronovo, in his baggy, too-short trousers, striped tee-shirt and sneakers (she doesn’t in fact look at all Italian either; he does). Castronovo is the revelation of this show (and got the loudest applause). Not bright like Florez’, his voice is a rounder, darker, lyric tenor, firm and “comfortable,” that reminded me of Carreras back in the days when he still sang Rossini. He has great charm on stage: everyone was rooting for him.

Heidi Grant Murphy sings beautifully, but less artistry and more volume would have been useful in the vast Bastille: she was barely audible except over pianissimo pizzicati, in recitative or in a handful of high notes. You might blame the choice of the Bastille for that, but she was in fact no easier to hear as Susanna at the Palais Garnier. I wonder how she gets on at the Met.

Laurent Naouri played Belcore totally buffo, an approach which made his now unruly vibrato more or less acceptable. Alberto Rinaldi was the kind of Italian trouper, with 40 years of repertory under his belt, that you come to expect as Dulcamara, blustering his way through the part shamelessly and amiably.

Edward Gardner gave Donizetti’s music, a sow’s ear in the wrong hands, all the care and attention, vim and vigour it needs to turn it into a silk purse. The slow bits were handled with delicacy, the fast bits bounced along, and the first rumty-tum oom-cha-oom-cha passage in the overture gave me the same kind of thrill as the first sighting of an umbrella pine as the plane comes into land at Leonardo da Vinci: Italy!

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