OperaUpClose’s production of Elixir of Love is by far the best update of an opera Michael Tanner has ever seen

Plus: a David McVicar production from the Met forces Tanner to switch allegiances from Cav to Pag

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

The Elixir of Love


Cavalleria Rusticana; Pagliacci

Met Opera Live

Three staples of the Italian repertoire, performed and seen in very different circumstances, have confirmed my view that they deserve their place in the repertoire, however many other works by their composers or contemporaries may be unearthed.

I saw OperaUpClose’s version of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love in the Mumford Theatre Cambridge, an underused venue that has the advantage of being 200 yards from my house. It is by far the best thing I have seen OUC do, and I regret catching only the last of many performances, but the only one here, where there is almost no interest in opera. Cleverly adapted and translated, this version takes place in Hollywood, with Adina a big star, Nemorino her gardener and poolboy, Belcore her fiancé and a soldier and aspiring congressman, and Dulcamara her stylist. This is by far the best updating of an opera I have seen, Dulcamara especially, with his collection of anti-ageing creams and other youth-preservers and libido-enhancers, and performed with great verve, almost menace, by Dickon Gough. I have often thought that Elixir is so free of malice that it is amazing that it isn’t boring, but in this adaptation satire is gently brought to the fore, making Adina’s final realisation of where her affections really lie a kind of Douglas Sirk moment.

It so happened that the same weekend I was reviewing a DVD of La favorite, a late serious opera Donizetti wrote for Paris, and CDs of Les Martyrs, another one: both performances are admirable, both operas last more than three hours, and though they contain fine things both are ultimately dull. It is inconceivable that they will take a place in the repertoire, at least until another Callas appears.

The latest Met Opera Live series ended last Saturday with Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. It’s quite a time since I saw the terrible twins together, and thanks to the ticketing policy of the Cambridge Picturehouse I was viewing them from a weird perspective, to put it mildly, with my nose almost pressing against the left edge of the wide screen; which also produced odd audio results. They both survived, and showed that they have plenty of life in them still. Cav. came first; it has recently been my preferred one of the two, but that is no longer the case, despite a mainly excellent performance, and a first-rate production by David McVicar. Fabio Luisi conducted the operas with both passion and finesse, without indulging in the absurd over-conducting that Christian Thielemann indulged in at the Salzburg Easter Festival. But, at least in the case of Cav., I’d have preferred a more gutsy, even coarse treatment of what is, after all, a pretty tacky score. There is no complexity whatever. As D.H. Lawrence wrote, ‘Verga’s story …is as much superior to Mascagni’s rather cheap music as wine is superior to sugar-water.’ The only way to get away with it is to relish it. I suspect, too, that Marcelo Alvarez, who portrayed the central male figure in each opera, was saving himself for Pag., as he made clear in his wild-eyed interview with Susan Graham. McVicar set the opera in 1900, everyone in black, the village square no more than a black space with chairs round it. Eva-Maria Westbroek was a Santuzza of great intensity, and the central scene between her and Turiddu was electrifying. Westbroek is now somewhat squally, but that only adds to the excitement.

It came as something of a shock to me, though it shouldn’t have, how immeasurably more refined and sophisticated musically Pag. is, going with its more generous spreading of sympathies over the warring characters. Anyone who saw Jon Vickers as Canio has to put that firmly on one side, as usual with him. Marcelo Alvarez was in better voice and certainly acted more comprehensively than he has for a long time, and Canio’s pathos and agony, and his terrifying loss of control in the final scene, were things to remember. Patricia Racette’s Nedda matched him in her tormenting mix of feelings, and made a great deal of her lovely fantasies, and of her brief scene with Silvio, Lucas Meacham making a lot of a small role. And George Gagnidze’s Tonio may be the most moving interpretation of the part I have seen, with a magnificent rendering of the Prologue, Leoncavallo’s artistic credo, and musically inspired. In the opera proper Tonio managed to be as tormented as everyone else — an all-too motivated Iago.

McVicar updated Pag. to 1950, to show, presumably, that the great destructive passions remain unchanged. Not that one had thought otherwise, but this stunning production made sure that it’s not forgotten. It was a strong end to an uneven season, but next season promises to be sensational: I hope I can watch it from further back.

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