Vittorio Grigolo is undeniably one of the big superstars of the opera world. The Italian tenor, with his movie star looks and passionate singing, has captured the world's stage with an inimitable stage presence and sparkling spontaneity that makes every performance of his quite the fascinating adventure.
Those best qualities have been rather apparent in his recent run of performances of Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" at the Metropolitan, where he has worked alongside an overall A-team to bring the comedy to life. Unfortunately that has not been enough to overcome what has become, over the years, a confounding production by one of the Met's most inconsistent mainstay directors.
Bartlett Sher's Production - A Tale of Two Incongruent Stories
Bartlett Sher's "Barber of Seville" remains his Met masterpiece, and even that production, with its extended stage can be somewhat problematic for the Met orchestra's sound. Nonetheless, Sher's productions since have been rather haphazard and inconsistent with his most disappointing work in Verdi's glorious "Otello" coming earlier this season. The "Elisir" is right there with it in terms of the confusion it induces. A rather "traditional" interpretation of the comedy, the production ultimately has not justified its right to exist. Sher tries out a concept in the first half of the opera before utterly abandoning it in the second, likely having realized that it simply does not work within the frames of this intimate opera. The end result? Two seemingly incongruent operas.
2016 Metropolitan Opera: 'Le Nozze di Figaro' Review - Great Singing, Acting & Music All Around
Metropolitan Opera Review 2015-16 - 'Don Pasquale:' Exquisite Singing & Musicianship All Around
Equally confounding is the all-important diary that Nemorino carries around with him for half an opera. A prop that the audiences sees as crucial for the character ultimately tells us nothing about him and likely could have. Also, how is Nemorino able to write pages and pages in a diary but then struggles to sign his name for Belcore? Sher sidesteps the issue by ignoring the diary altogether after a while, likely hoping the audience forgets about it as well.
Though Adina's sense of power might be Sher's most thought-provoking idea, it also makes the character far more fickle and undeserving of Nemorino's love by the end of the night.
Sher's abundance for visual distraction is also on full display here with the stage's arc curtain having no real motivation for being there in the first place. One scene transition is ever-annoying, with people carrying out blades of grass while singers are performing a delightful scene in front of them. Try as they might, viewers are stimulated by any kind of new movement and this area is no exception. The decision to stage the wedding in the barn might be a funny touch, but it does not really make much sense. This set is so bare in its use of mis-en-scene that it might as well not exist once the wedding party is gone.
The wardrobe of course looks like every other Sher opera to date, which is either a brilliant way of making everyone feel like his operas live in the same universe or simply a lack of creativity or interest in differentiating one character from another across different works.
But enough with Sher's production, which is now a few years old and seemingly here to stay for some time. The singers are where the real value is.
Albeit, they all seem to be in a different show.
The Italian Superstar Delivers Vocal Nuance Amid Confused Portrayal
Grigolo's Nemorino, with his leather jacket, looks more like James Dean than a simpleton that is too innocent to see that others are using and abusing him. Hence his attempts to get close to Adina in the early going look less innocent than they probably should be. In fact, Nemorino's behavior as he tries to cuddle up to the reading Adina come off as distracting and quite frankly annoying. Anyone wondering why Adina is put off initially by Nemorino only needs to watch this scene. The result is that Grigolo's Nemorino jumped between being too self-knowing and too stupid throughout the opera, making him ultimately difficult to truly get behind. During the duet "Una parola, o Adina," his Nemorino responded to Adina's first poet metaphor with a rather forward rendition of his own metaphor, grabbing her and sitting her on his lap, the confidence oozing out of his voice and body language. A few moments earlier he was sitting around with a book in his lap, not seemingly bothered by Adina telling him why he was rejecting her.
In the scenes with Dulcamara, his Nemorino was the innocent "idiot" he is often called throughout, his puppy eyes wondering from the bottle of Bordeaux to the con-man Dulcamara. His boyish enthusiasm at drinking the Elixir was in stark contrast to his character from the first scene, but certainly came off rather believable in the new context. His drunkenness however was undeniably fantastic to watch, his movement and his voice slowly losing its balance and edge. When he re-entered the stage in the second act to find himself ambushed by the chorus of women, Grigolo sang with a nasal quality, the phrasing short and muffled. It was a winning moment, one of the few instances where a singer uses his full vocal powers to create said effect and really drive home the sense and feel of vocal drunkenness.
Speaking of vocal powers, Grigolo's were at their best here and undeniably transcended an inconsistent character portrayal (though it must be emphasized that he is a compelling actor through and through). If bel canto is defined by singing with a wide palette of colors, then few tenors could claim to possess the arsenal that Grigolo has in this respect. His voice can move from a rather pointed spinto-like quality to the most delicate of vocal threads to something rather granular and coarse. It is all there and it is used with tremendous precision that still feels fresh and unpredictable. Few phrase like Grigolo does, singing pianissimo during the Act 3 ensemble that features chorus, Adina and Dulcamara while risking being overpowered. And yet through it all, his sudden shaping pulls the audience in deeper into his vocal portrayal. The same happened during the second half of the duet with Dulcamara. In the duet with Belcore, Grigolo's singing had a rather heavy feel to it, the tenor giving the singing more desperation than one might come to expect from Nemorino at this point, but also highlighting just how low he has come.
Of course the question of the day will be the famed "Una Furtiva Lagrima," the touchstone of the work for any tenor. Grigolo sang it here with tremendous introspection, his voice mezzo voce throughout the early portions, the phrasing crescendoing subtly, but then being reigned in. Finally at the change of the key from minor to major on "Cielo si puo morir!" making the transition from Nemorino's guilt toward his exultation all the more potent. That he chose to prostrate himself at this point only added to the emotional resonance. The choice to singing the second "Si puo morir" at the end of the aria as an utterly sublime pianississimo brought back the emotions of the opening of the aria once more, giving us the sense that Nemorino still carries his mixed emotions about seeing Adina suffer for him. To punctuate it the final phrase with a gloriously suspenseful swell was the final masterstroke on Grigolo's vocally prolific rendition. As an added bonus, his final celebratory vocal embellishments upon finally being given the love he has so desperately sought, added to the character's charm and elation.
Aleksandra Kursak Comes Into Her Own in Second Act
Aleksandra Kursak's Adina was likely the most grounded in Sher's production throughout Act 1, her emphasis on being the woman in power apparent from the forefront in Act 1. But that also meant that her character was rather confusing to the viewer, Adina alternating from giving Nemorino demeaning looks at some instances and then frustrated ones when she ignored her. One never truly got the sense that Adina truly loved him, but simply pitied him and her final actions as the first curtain drew to a close seemed to come from an egotistical need rather than true love. This might seem all well and done if it is in fact the ultimate interpretation of the production, but it threatened to contradict the effusive cries of "t'amo" that Adina professes four or five times with increasing ardency at the climax of the work.
Kurzak's portrayal in the second act told a very different story. It told the story of a woman that was interested in flirting with Nemorino throughout and found herself suddenly frustrated by his not returning her interest. It told the story of a woman who was on some level used to getting her way, but still rather emotionally connected to those around her. It told the story of a character, which finally faced with coming to terms with owning up to her feelings, is actually rather vulnerable and possibly at a loss as to what to do. This all made for a credible delivery on many fronts, even if it sometimes came into conflict with the what Sher's staging demanded in Act 1. Kurzak's finest moments of the night came in the second act when the bare staging meant that she was allowed free reign to control the scenery and play her own Adina on her own terms. And in this regard it was a far more fluid and likeable character. From her comic flourishes and flirtatious vocal intonations during the duet with Dulcamara to the interpolated crying after the final note of the duet's first section, this was a character alive with emotion.
During the aria "Prendi, per me sei libero," Kurzak sang rather quietly, her voice drawing the listener in, casting a hypnotic spell. Every phrase was sculpted elegantly, every ebb and flow of her voice capturing the listener. Her coloratura during the jubilant cabaletta was refined, hammering home the sense of excitement over Adina's newfound emotional freedom.
Different Operas for Corbelli and Plachetka
Alessandro Corbelli was as hilarious as ever, but his Dulcamara seemed to be fixed in a more farcical staging of "Elisir." His accented body language and facial expressions seemed more in line with a more relaxed portrayal, which certainly came into grave dissonance with Sher's more serious tone.
As with Kurzak and Grigolo's performances, it seemed to come into its own during the second half of the opera when the scenery and staging demands allowed more freedom to the actors. He had a lot of fun with Kurzak during their duet.
Baritone Adam Plachetka seemed like his character was stuck in a tragic opera the entire time, making his narcissistic Belcore come off as tyrannical and needlessly aggressive.
In the pit conductor Enrique Mazzola provided his singers with solid support, though he seemed in a bit of a rush early on in "Una furtiva lagrima," running ahead of Grigolo while the tenor extended a long note.
If great singing is of great interest to you, then this "Elisir d'Amore" will provide that in spade. But if dramatic cohesion and comedy is what you crave, this "Elisir," as directed by Sher, is simply not structured for such a job.