The Metropolitan Opera opened its 2012-13 season with a new production of The Elixir of Love, Donizetti’s offbeat romantic comedy. For 20 years, the Met had a production by John Copley: goofy, whimsical, endearing—like The Elixir of Love. It looked like an old-fashioned Valentine’s Day card. At the end, a banner was unfurled: “Viva l’Amore.” Most critics hated this production, finding it dated and embarrassing.
The Met’s new production is by Bartlett Sher, of Broadway fame (and also known for his Barber of Seville at the Met). There’s nothing wrong with his Elixir. Dr. Dulcamara’s wagon is splendid. But, overall, the production is a bit dull—without gaiety or fizz.
Singing the role of Adina was the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. The night I attended—a week after the opening—she had an uncertain start. Her pitch was sometimes sharp, and her sense of the music sometimes went awry. She was ungraceful, clumsy. Moreover, her voice was cloudy and gray. No Italian sunshine came through it. But she is Anna Netrebko, and she soon hit her stride. She put on an excellent demonstration of bel canto. And has anyone ever been so at home on a stage? She’s more at home onstage than most people are in their living rooms.
Matthew Polenzani, the American tenor, was Nemorino. He was a different kind of Nemorino: not a country bumpkin but a tortured, Byronic figure. More a Werther than a Nemorino. But, oh, his singing. He too had a subpar start, but once he got going, he was an exemplar. He exemplified technical control, musical taste and, of course, beauty of sound. His “Una furtiva lagrima” was possibly the most perfect thing I’ve heard on the Met stage since his “Serenade” from Don Pasquale (by the same composer, Donizetti).
Mariusz Kwiecien, the Polish baritone, was Belcore, smooth in virtually all respects. He had the swagger, pomposity and, yes, charm of his character. Dulcamara was an Italian baritone with a marvelous name: Ambrogio Maestri. He proved a big, bluff, Falstaffian figure. He almost got his high G. And the Italian language out of his mouth was superb. He greeted the country folk as “rustici”—rustics—with a marvelous sneer. And a priceless rolled “r.”
Anne-Carolyn Bird met a criterion of Giannetta: adorability. The conductor Maurizio Benini gave a plausible reading in the pit. So, what was wrong with this Elixir? Well, it was just a little dull and sober, not fully an Elixir. It sort of wanted to be Lucia or something instead. At the end, I saw a banner, mentally, involuntarily: “Viva l’Amore.”
Two nights later, Carnegie Hall opened its season with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under its music director, Riccardo Muti. On the menu was a single piece: Orff’s Carmina Burana. “Nazi dreck,” a scholar friend of mine said before the concert. Well, dreck in parts, and maybe by a Nazi, but not Nazi dreck per se. The most popular section of this pagan oratorio is the opening one, “O Fortuna,” which the composer had the good sense to repeat at the end. This music really is a masterstroke. You or I should have written it: We’d be rich.
When Muti walked onto the stage, the crowd greeted him with rapturous, tumultuous applause. There is a cult of Muti. People treat him as though he were a great and historic maestro. He certainly carries himself like one. And sometimes he conducts like one. More and more often, it seems to me.
He is especially good with bombastic or mediocre music. He reins in bombast, and he elevates mediocrity, to the extent possible. These are important qualities for a conductor. This summer, I heard Muti conduct an early Berlioz mass that is really a student piece and not quite fit for the stage. Muti gave it the attention and care he would give Otello—maybe more. He also gave Carmina Burana great attention and care. He was exacting, propulsive and tight (in a good sense). It would be hard to imagine a better case for the work.
Of the soloists, Rosa Feola, an Italian soprano, was outstanding. She handled difficult high notes with aplomb. Elsewhere, she sang sweetly, purely and innocently. She did so, of course, while singing racy lyrics. Even the children’s chorus has racy lyrics to sing. Orff’s oratorio, part dreck, part inspiration, will never stop appealing.