Say what you will about Bartlett Sher’s patchy track record in opera, the man knows how to put on a lively show. (His nimble, industriously comic “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” is one of the few triumphs of Peter Gelb’s tenure.) Mr. Sher’s longtime designer and collaborator, Michael Yeargen, is a master at conjuring striking new worlds using poetically simple, highly arresting stage pictures.
It’s easy to see why Mr. Sher was commissioned to direct a new version of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” to replace John Copley’s soggy 1991 staging, which returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Monday evening. With its sickly sweet cardboard sets and dreary lighting, this production brings to mind a child’s coloring book left out in the rain. Even the most fastidious of opera traditionalists will agree that it’s time for something new.
Fortunately, the Met has recruited an all-star cast that more than compensates for the problems plaguing Mr. Copley’s production. Mariusz Kwiecien, Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez are arguably three of the house’s biggest stars, and Monday night’s performance provided an opportunity for audiences to see why.
As Nemorino, Juan Diego Flórez delivered some of the strongest acting of his career. Playing the simple country bumpkin who pines for the shrewish Adina, Mr. Flórez harnessed his natural charisma to paint an endearing portrait of boyish, puppy love. (His drunken bursts of physical comedy got some of the biggest laughs of the evening.) His singing was strong and ardent, with impressively controlled legato and a clean, athletic execution of coloratura. In the past, Mr. Flórez’s sound has been a bit tight for my taste, but the comedic demands of the role seemed to free him here; his middle was uncharacteristically warm, his top clarion with plenty of squillo.
Diana Damrau improves with each performance, and her house role debut as Adina marks a new triumph for this exceptional soprano. As the proud and wily landowner who eventually falls for Nemorino, Ms. Damrau played the character with a canny mix of nuance and impeccable comedic timing. This Adina is a headstrong spitfire, but she’s also wonderfully endearing.
The stridency that occasionally creeps into Ms. Damrau’s singing has all but disappeared. Here, her sound was plush and inviting, with ringing high notes and a creamy middle. Her use of fioritura was always tasteful, and executed with laser-like precision.
Yet the technical accomplishment and effortlessness of Ms. Damrau’s coloratura emphasized the lack of drama behind her ornamentations. The runs, trills and scales that buttress the musical line were merely vocal calisthenics – never treated as an emotional expression or an organic outgrowth of the drama. The overall effect was distancing; Ms. Damrau’s singing only dazzled when it could have captivated.
For devotees of Ms. Damrau, I do not mean to undermine her performance here, which was magnificent. I truly believe she is a major artist, capable of infusing more drama into this particular aspect of her singing. I am eagerly anticipating her turn as Violetta next season that promises to be an unforgettable night of opera.
Coming off a disappointing run as Don Giovanni earlier this season, the baritone Mariusz Kwiecien had an impressive outing as Sergeant Belcore. Oozing swagger and charisma, Mr. Kwiecien made it easy to see why Adina quickly falls for this hunk at the beginning of the opera. His singing has grown in musicianship and elegance over the years. The rich, sensuous bloom of his voice made for a swoony “Come Paride vezzoso” in Act I.
The veteran baritone Alessandro Corbelli, unparalleled in buffo roles, was masterful as Dr. Dulcamara. In his opening aria “Udite, udite, o rustici,” in which Dulcamara tricks the villagers into thinking a bottle of Bordeaux is a magic love potion, Mr. Corbelli dispensed the wordy, rapid-fire phrasing with aplomb. His workmanlike comedic gifts turned the number into the evening’s high point.
Donato Renzetti led an unsteady account of Donizetti’s sparkling score. Initially moving the tempi at a lugubrious pace, he eventually settled into a generally swift, exuberant interpretation, but continued to have noticeable coordination problems with his singers. Still, thanks to a terrific cast, this was a “L’elisir” to drink in.