I think I have developed a crush on Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, which is strange, considering that it is so evidently adorable a work that most opera-goers fall for it straight away. I have never been averse to it, in the way that I am to quite a lot of Donizetti’s work, but in the light of the last two performances I’ve seen, within a few weeks, it has risen in my estimation to the level of being a masterpiece. The first was the Met’s broadcast, delightful in all respects, but with an interestingly unusual balance of sympathy towards the characters. Now, at the Royal Opera, Laurence Pelly’s production is revived for the second time, the revival director being Daniel Dooner, who has been unusually active, unless my memory fails me.
The feature of this Elisir that makes it truly outstanding — the excellent team-work, inspired by the conducting of Bruno Campanella, granted — is Roberto Alagna’s Nemorino. Though it has always been a favourite opera of his, this is the first time he has sung it at Covent Garden. His voice may not be quite as lovely as it was at its peak — ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ was a bit monochrome — but it gives no cause for alarm, though he should be careful about trying to throw in the odd high note. What is marvellous is his identification with the role, and his tasteful but energetic inventiveness. This Nemorino is no amiable village idiot, though he is as willing to believe in Dulcamara’s love potion as virtually everyone in the consumer society is in health products and anti-wrinkle creams. He jumps around on the vast haystack of the first scene to get as near to the cynosure of activity as possible, and later displays a remarkable range of tumbles, rolls and leaps. He is only too happy to reveal his physical charms to the village girls (with his back to the audience), and all told is not a loser whom Fate makes into a surprise winner, which Nemorino can so easily become, much to the opera’s detriment.
Aleksandra Kurzak’s Adina is familiar from 2007, but she is now more slender, more subtle, and more capable of pain when it seems as if she has spurned Nemorino once too often. Kurzak’s voice is a size too small, or was in Act I, but she is a winning actress. Fabio Capitanucci didn’t register much as Belcore, but that may be because of memories of Marius Kwiecen at the Met. By contrast Ambrogio Maestri’s vast Dulcamara, unusually benign, even if that is thanks to the ease with which he sells his elixirs, rivets attention as a Falstaff avant la lettre.
The updating to Italy in the 1950s, now the required setting for most operas, is in this case harmless, and enables two trucks to be driven on to the stage, much to the audience’s delight. Not as much, of course, as the Jack Russell that sprints across the stage twice, in opposite directions. So is L’elisir just good clean fun, set to an abundance of winning melodies? It’s a little more than that, I think, because Donizetti does show in this opera a big-heartedness and a capacity to enter into each of his characters that aligns him more with Mozart than with Rossini, whose comic greatness lies precisely in his chilly penetrating gaze.
I have had some more thoughts about Vaughan Williams’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, which I reviewed last week. I think the reason that it polarises opinion and that its devotees are so unwilling to admit its unevenness is that it belongs in that class of works where a temporary lapse in inspiration can lead to disastrous results. They are works that stand somewhere between art and various forms of belief, above all religious belief. There is no category assigned to them, yet I can think of examples in all the arts, so-called. In music, or specifically opera, other members of the class may well be Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal. Neither of them is a religious work in any straightforward way, any more than Pilgrim is. Yet they induce a certain frame of mind, or responsiveness, which is different from that that we normally grant to operas, more akin to the non-believer’s response to the Matthäus-Passion. Some kind of suspension of disbelief is called for, though it is terribly difficult to say what exactly that amounts to. It does have the consequence, however, that if the work loses its grip on you, even briefly, you may change your perspective on it and find yourself unable to enter its spirit again, with embittering consequences. That particular state of mind, of near-belief or whatever, is one that those who are resistant to any kind of submission are able to recognise from the outside, and to reject decisively. I feel tentative about that, but the polarisation that some works create does demand an explanation.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 24 November 2012