The Metropolitan Opera has apparently decided to open each season with the same opera: Anna Netrebko. Ostensibly, it’s a different work from year to year—Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in 2011, the same composer’s L’Elisir d’Amore this time, and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in 2013. But Netrebko, the Met’s diva of divas du jour, converts each score into a tribute to herself, so they might as well just retitle them all in her honor. On this opening night, she sashayed, grinned, embraced, snarled, cavorted, and simpered like the champion sashayer she is; only the singing gave her a little trouble. Her voice—syrupy, rich, slow-pouring—gummed up the whirring mechanism of Donizetti’s romantic comedy so thoroughly that I expected it to shudder to a stop. As for her character, Netrebko treated Adina as an annoying tagalong whose needs kept intruding on her relationship with the TV cameras.
The Met should have been able to amble into glory with this one. L’Elisir d’Amore brims with adorable tunes and mildly amusing situations; the characters may need a fake love potion to bring them together, but the music can seduce the audience on its own. The Met has even secured the excellent baritone Mariusz Kwiecien in the supporting role of Belcore. Surely it’s not impossible to scrounge up some stylish, efficient charm for the production.
When the curtain rises on Bartlett Sher’s production, you can practically feel the relief: a set! Instead of the usual gloomily lit abstractions, we see a refreshingly old-fashioned Italian village filled with provincial folk in their 1830s Sunday best. Everything feels first-quality: Catherine Zuber’s flounce-sleeved gowns and azure uniforms, Jennifer Tipton’s rosy lighting, Michael Yeargan’s cinematic piazza.
Yet the apparatus soon starts coming apart. When Dulcamara, the traveling potion-peddler, makes his entrance, his carriage maneuvers center stage, boxes are piled to form stairs, and the orchestra goes into eager tremors. Finally, the doors open, and … nothing. A great big man steps out and waits a beat for a laugh that never comes. In the aria that follows—“Udite, Udite”—the baritone Ambrogio Maestri, who should be utterly, riotously at home in the role of the gluttonous buffoon, never quite ignites. The moment is a portent of an evening riddled with small misjudgments, anticlimaxes, and grinding gears. Here’s one: The first scene change, conducted behind a curtain, takes so long that it raises fears of some calamitous mishap.
Here’s another: Ensemble scenes, so crucial to Donizetti’s controlled comic frenzy, grow musically murky. Before James Levine became a music director in absentia, he infallibly burnished his ensembles to a gloss so that the crosscurrents of moods and motivations could always be distinguished, no matter how densely overlapped. Maurizio Benini simply keeps the beat and hopes for the best, producing a generalized hubbub.
L’Elisir d’Amore should be a tenor’s show, since it’s the character of Nemorino who primes the plot with his haplessness and lyric gifts. No lover in opera pines more beautifully than he does in the second-act aria “Una Furtiva Lagrima.” For a moment—when the buildings melt away, leaving the tenor Matthew Polenzani standing alone in a field of tall grass—the production seems at last to have found its center. Polenzani has a warm, pliant timbre, and he uses it with great musical intelligence. But the evening’s thoughtlessness gets to him, and he compensates with studious emotion. The phrases stiffen, the spontaneity dries up.
I have no idea whether the director, the conductor, and the soprano are fighting offstage, but they probably should be. Netrebko, now lagging, now speeding, now fudging a run, keeps trying to unseat the orchestra. Impatient with the whole notion of ensemble comedy, she vamps and twirls as if she were alone onstage, while Polenzani forlornly tries to match her antics. Sher may well have had something to say with this opera, but if so he never got in a word.