I’m often critical of the Washington National Opera, and recently I’ve written quite a bit about bel canto singing and how they should do it better. Well, let me recant. The Metropolitan Opera opened its season with a bel canto opera on Monday night, Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore,” and it was definitely worse.
Let’s be clear about the standards of comparison. WNO is a company retreating from the verge of bankruptcy, still working with an eye to cutting costs. The Met, by contrast, is the leading company in the United States and can throw lots of money at its productions. Indeed, this “Elisir” was almost suffocated by excess. A small-scale tale about village peasants, it got veritable grand opera treatment in Bartlett Sher’s production, entombed in Michael Yeargan’s large-scale sets, and with a top-flight cast, on paper. But the result was somewhere between routine and desultory: a whole opera brought to the stage without anything fresh or delightful happening for the entire three hours.
What went wrong? Sher has certainly done cute humor at the Met before: Think “Barber of Seville,” or “Le Comte d’Ory.” But he seemed to leach the fun right out of this one. The first scene was at least promising, a 19th-century pastoral genre painting come to life, but then (after an inordinately long scene change) Scene Two moved the action to a provincial city square, complete with a church. Were these dressed-up townsfolk the same peasants who had just been gathering the harvest? Why, in Act II, did they wear their nice clean clothes into a barn for a celebratory dinner, like Marie Antoinette and her court playing at rural life? Why did Anna Netrebko sport a top hat for half the show? Clearly some of my gripes are with the costume designer, Catherine Zuber, but you get my point.
It’s the director’s job to answer such questions. But all of the expense and effort went to putting silhouettes onstage rather than living, breathing figures. This production epitomized the contemporary mode of performance some people hail as a new era of opera acting, which involves a lot of supposedly naturalistic rushing around the stage — Netrebko leaped and spun as if she were about to break into a Cossack dance — and precious little actual character development. It’s fine to play a humorous piece straight, but you have to create believable, three-dimensional figures to make it work. Sher and his company instead simply played down the comic moments, such as the entrance of the traveling quack Dr. Dulcamara (Ambrogio Maestri), who emerged from a black carriage without making much effect at all. Maestri’s voice was uneven — one phrase powerful, another pale — and the funniest thing about his character seemed to be that he was fat. Surely we can go a little deeper than that.
Advance casting didn’t do the production any favors. Netrebko may have seemed like a natural for the part of Adina when she was hired three or five years ago, but her voice at the start of Monday’s performance had a warm, dark, dusky sound heading south into mezzo territory. Though she unleashes a few gorgeous high pianissimos, I’d rather hear her harness her sound and temperament to Tchaikovsky or Puccini than bel canto, which she doesn’t sing with particular accuracy. She was a wonderful sport and seemed to be enjoying herself, but there are better ways to make use of her talents.
And a few years ago, it made sense to think that Matthew Polenzani, a homegrown American tenor, would by now be ready for the spotlight. Yet though he has the vocal goods, he doesn’t have the requisite spark: Too often, his singing indicated he was thinking less of heartbreak than of his diction. He was at his best in the showpiece aria “Una furtiva lagrima,” which ended with some melting soft notes that brought down the house.
Mariusz Kwiecien suffered particularly from the disease of purported naturalism. As the officer Belcore, who blusters into town and tries to commandeer Adina, he was loud, frantic and unrelentingly obnoxious.
It may sound odd to ask for less focus on the words, but taking the libretto at face value detracted from the lyrical vocal lines of this ravishingly pretty opera. The ensembles, usually scintillating, were muddy and chaotic; Maurizio Benini, the conductor, didn’t seem to have much control over either singers or orchestra.
“L’Elisir” remains pretty irresistible, and as Netrebko and Polenzani started to get into it in Act II, the crowd went wild. For this listener, though, it was too little, too late. Take heart, Washington. The Met is making your opera company look better and better.
“L’Elisir d’Amore” continues at the Met through Oct. 13 (the date of the live HD transmission), and returns Jan. 30 to Feb. 9.