In the opening scene of L’elisir d’amore Adina retells the myth of Tristan and Isolde – a choice of tale that seemed especially apt at this performance. The Royal Opera has just spent several months immersed in Wagnerian storytelling through four cycles of Der Ring des Nibelungen and is only now starting its regular season with Donizetti’s lightweight comedy – a painless way to ease back into action.
The most effective productions of L’elisir d’amore seek to capture the charm of rural life in the pre-industrial era. Laurent Pelly’s updating of the opera to the 1950s prefers a wry take on it: the vistas of the Italian countryside are still there, but now overrun with electricity pylons and battered tractors. Perhaps his point is that innocence still survives there. Overall, not much harm is done, but other productions have felt more natural and looked prettier.
The cast for this revival is headed by Roberto Alagna, who counted Nemorino among his best roles 20 years ago. Now nearing 50, he is more the unrepentant, middle-aged suitor than the guileless boy, determined to show he still has what it takes by tossing around bales of hay and stripping off his top for the girls of the village. The honeyed tenor of his youth has gone, but he sings cleanly enough (except when he struggles to throw in an extra high C). His Nemorino has energy, star quality, but no real charm.
The other big personality is Ambrogio Maestri’s Dulcamara. The Italian baritone plays the charlatan doctor sunny-side-up as a genial master of ceremonies – a less interesting interpretation of the role than the seedy shark seen previously. But what a voice – a huge sound, quite magisterial. Hearing the brilliance with which he brings his native language to life is a rare pleasure.
Aleksandra Kurzak is outstanding as a delightfully flighty Adina, who wings her way fluently through the coloratura. Fabio Capitanucci makes a firm, not very charismatic Belcore, and Bruno Campanella conducts at a leisurely pace. They all work hard rather than merely trusting the opera’s naïve charm to come to life – not Wagner maybe, but still a challenge in its own way.