Ah, fall hath returned. And for opera aficionados like myself lucky enough to be based in New York, this signifies the return of the season at THE METROPOLITAN OPERA. Some of you might snooze and skip over this particular article, due to some archaic preconception that you “don’t like opera” because “you heard it once on the radio and it was boring” or “opera is for rich, old people” or some other tired excuse I’ve heard from people over the years. But I challenge all of you who are thinking this to go once to a live performance, take 3 minutes to read a synopsis online, and then come back and tell me what you think. The grandeur of the sets, the warmth of a live orchestra, these humans onstage belting their faces off without any microphone and you can hear them perfectly … it’s really something to experience. At the Met in particular, just walking into Lincoln Center at night is really magical. And you can’t understand a fraction of this experience listening an old Three Tenors recording playing in the background of The Olive Garden while stuffing your face with “The Never Ending Pasta Bowl”.
Opera’s stories are the same stories we see on TV and Movies everyday … Believe it or not people really haven’t changed much in the past couple hundred years. In opera they are falling in love, getting betrayed, banging people they probably shouldn’t, getting drunk, killing people, running from the law, and sometimes even downing a Never Ending Pasta Bowl themselves…
And while we are at it, let’s get the second stereotype out of the way … not all opera singers are fat either. In fact a lot of them a pretty attractive… even hot. Yes, some are fat. Just like there are fat people in almost every field. But some of them look like this…
One of these lovely ladies, Ms. Anna Netrebko, was the star of the Met’s opening production this season, L’ELISIR D’AMORE. L’Elisir is a lighthearted romp topped off with everyone’s favorite ballad “Una Furtiva Lagrima” (click on title for YouTube link… trust me you have heard it before). If opera was Hollywood, this would definitely be classified as a “Rom-Com”. In fact it would kinda be like NOTTING HILL. Guy falls for girl way out of his league, except instead of 20th century London it’s set in a small village in Italy … and unfortunately without Hugh Grant’s fantastic floppy mane.
For all of you a bit less experienced in the ways of opera – let me break down the plot in perhaps a more palipitable tone for our younger generation (clears throat):
Basically the story starts out with hapless lad Nemorino, played here by Met favorite tenor Matthew Polenzani, who is just your everyday Joe of the local village. Not really that smart, not really that rich, but with a charm that wins you over akin to the feeling when you pass by sad little puppy dogs in pet-store windows. He’s desperately in love with Adina, portrayed by opera’s current diva megastar Anna Netrebko, but frankly Adina is a little out of his league. Adina is not only rich (thanks to her dead ex husband), she’s experienced in the ways of men (in 19th century Italy widows were allowed to be slutty since they have already been properly deflowered by their husbands), and holy cow the girl can even READ – as demonstrated in the ACT 1 number where she reads off to the town the medieval story of Tristan and Isolde, a story about a crazy English man who drank a love potion in order to win the heart of his beloved (Foreshadowing anyone?)
But Adina isn’t your typical broad swooning away after all the eligible bachelors. She tells poor Nemorino how her heart is fickle and likes her life flirting with whoever she pleases i.e. basically an older version of “aw, that’s sweet. It’s not you … it’s me!”. Then one of Adina’s suitors comes sweeping into town, the dashing Belcore, played by a hunky Marius Kweichen. He’s been around the block a few hundred more times than Nemorino, so knows that if you wanna win the girl you gotta be direct and basically put the little lady in her place. This doesn’t immediately win Adina over, but she’s definitely interested much to Nemorino’s dismay.
Just when poor Nemorino is about to give up, Hallilujah who comes sweeping into town in his fancy schamancy carriage to save the day? The “Doctor” Dulcamara … who played by Ambrogio Maestri, turns out to be pretty much the fattest and tallest man alive. Seriously, think around 6’5” and 300+ lbs. But for this comedic swindler of a character it works. The great doctor arrives with his magic “elixir” that he claims will cure anything from rickets, to paralysis, to asthma … and even can make everyone to fall in love with you. Screw the Shake Weight™, everyone in the village wants a piece of this stuff.
Nemorino runs to Dulcamara, cuts him a check, and is completely stoked that he will finally get to make all of those sexy dreams he had laying on his straw bed back at the farm come true. Little does he know that the elixir isn’t really a love potion (you don’t say ….) but really just a cheap Bordeaux. Ah, but alas – if there is one “magical” liquid that can boost your confidence enough to hit on the ladies … it’s a little Dutch Courage. So Nemorino gets wasted, runs into Adina, and is basically like “bitch please” and completely blows her off …. which men with game know actually works. Adina is piiiiiiissed. So in order to make him jealous and she goes off and accepts Belcore’s proposal of marriage. She has no intention of going through with it, and doesn’t really care that all her friends are spending money to throw her a big party, she just wants to ruffle Nemorino’s feathers a bit.
When Nemmy sobers up with an assumed giant headache and wanders into her supposed “wedding feast”, he is basically like “WTF Adina. This elixir is total bullshit…. or wait … maybe I just didn’t drink enough! But crap, now I’m totally broke and can’t buy another one. I know! I’ll sign my life over to the army with that jerkface Belcore for some quick enlistment cash to buy a new bottle!” Bada bing bada boom, he signs and gets an amount that I imagine is close to about $27 American dollars, then strolls off to get himself some more of his special Kool-Aid. No one ever said the kid was bright.
Apparently during all the hubub, Nemorino’s insanely rich uncle kicked the bucket and his inheritance goes straight to Nemorino … basically making him the Mark Zuckerburg of the village. But Nemorino was too busy getting wasted to hear the news … so when all of the sudden all the girls in town see dollar signs … or Florin signs as dollars did not exist yet … and offer him unlimited motorboat rides …. he’s like ‘Ha Ha! The potion works! Who knew I would love nautical themed activities so much! Now where is my precious?”
Meanwhile Adina sees all the village slores throwing themselves at Nemorino and gets all sad pants, as she doesn’t understand why he’s stopped pursuing her. Nemorino creepily stalks her from a distance and sees her crying over him, when his heart swoons and he realizes she loves him too. He pops out of the bushes, they exchange their Julia Robert’s “I’m just a girl, in front of a boy, asking him to love her” moment. Smootches ensue. She buys his freedom from the army. A giant “well hot diggity damn” moment arises when Nemorino realizes hes rich. Belcore peaces out to take over Nemorino’s post as Captain of the Motorboat. Doc cleans out the rest of the towns pockets doling out sexytime potion that really WORKS. And everyone lives happily ever after!
Overall a cute piece. Will it change your life? No. But neither did How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, and you have seen that at least 6 times on TBS.
As for the actual singers performances, Ms. Netrebko was delightful as always bouncing around with her girlish joie de vivre she does so well. Although I can imagine some might have slight qualms with the disconnect that her voice is more suited these days to Puccini and Tchaikovsky vs the Donizetti soubrette repertoire. Perhaps this is due to the Met’s casting the role 3-5 years in advance, as five years ago “pre-baby” Netrebko’s timbre was much lighter and was at the time entirely appropriate for Adina. That aside she was surprisingly accurate with the coloratura and stayed in tune pretty much throughout the whole piece. Netrebko is such a wonderful actress in almost all that she performs, as long as the notes are all in place, here her lush and full tones didn’t bother me in the slightest. Ambrogio Maestri, while technically more of a Verdi baritone than a basso buffo as the score dictates, is saved by his flawless Italianate delivery rife with comedic flair and (literally) enormous stage presence. Marius Kwiechen gave a solid performance and appropriate swagger to Belcore, but at times seemed a little outshined by the star calibur of the rest of his cast.
Matthew Polenzani seems to have a bit of a polar effect on those who see and hear him. From several discussions I have had with other opera fans, either people love him or don’t really care for him. It’s clear by his repeated and featured casting in large productions that the “powers that be” at the Met love him, as he is quickly becoming one of their featured tenors du jour. And while I didn’t completely dislike his interpretation of Nemorino, I just don’t feel he has a firm grasp of the Italian repertoire quite yet. I thought similarly of his performance in last year’s production of the Willy Decker La Traviata (although fortunately for him any mishaps on his part were largely overlooked due to the train-wreck that was Natalie Dessay), and he’s yet to prove me wrong with his recent performance in L’Elisir. His timbre is focused and has the requisite brightness needed for the lyric Italian tenor repertoire, the issue for me comes in his delivery. Unlike the Mozart rep where he truly has excelled in in the past, Italian opera needs a little bit more passion and perhaps a bit less concentration on mathematical precision. On occasion during his Nemorino, it seems like he is so focused on enunciating the words perfectly, I feel little to no feeling when he says them. Watching him at times I can almost see him thinking about his raising his soft palate and “open E” sound rather than fully indulging in the character. While I appreciate a perfect sound as much as any student and lover of opera, this edges on the fringe of “park and barking”. The Italian repertoire was written to be full of passion and a bit more raw in it’s delivery, and I rarely get this from Polenzani. And I’m not sure if his voice has outgrown the role, or what he was thinking really, but he seamed to use an abundance of vocal “tricks” obviously coming off the voice for a “sweet effect”. This might be tolerated for younger less experienced tenors, but for someone as established as Polenzani I expect more. Although I will say those who have expressed their admiration for him, usually are going off the HD broadcasts vs seeing him in a large space as the theater .. perhaps some of his actions come off better up close vs on stage … but then again as opera is a stage born artform, I think I’d prefer an artist to excel better at the latter.
Bartlett Sher’s return to the Met stage was surely all the buzz prior to the show’s unveiling. The Tony award winning director is widely known in opera and theater circles alike, notably for giving the Met it’s enormously successful production of The Barber of Seville six seasons ago. The sets were colorful, the costumes … interesting…
SIDEBAR: I am guessing costume designer Catherine Zuber was going for a touch of “whimsy” with that ridiculous top hat she had Netrebko wearing through half the production, but I think it is unanimous amongst critics that it just didn’t work out. This is probably because the only characters that can wear top hats non-ironically are Scrooge McDuck, Mr. Peanut, and The Mad Hatter.
Sher set his version of the production shortly before Italy’s Risorgimento (the war Italy fought for it’s independence to be a united nation), I’m assuming to add some gravitas to Nemorino’s haphazard decision to join the army in exchange for a few bucks. But I doubt it added as much complexity as he hoped, but it at least didn’t cross the line of distraction (as it did with last year’s overhyped production of Faust set in pre-WW2).
Overall a few smiles, some swooning, and a couple laughs proved to make a fairly fun evening. A nice light comedy in order to let you escape the humdrum of every day life like any good Rom-Com should. A solid season opener, but I’m personally am looking forward to some of the more meaty repertoire the Met has in store for us the rest of the season.
For those of you who didn’t know already, The Metropolitan Opera a few years ago started something pretty fantastic. Now you don’t need to be in New York to experience the excitement and grandeur of The Met. With their LIVE IN HD BROADCASTS the Met LIVE STREAMS to you twelve of their most touted productions of the season to cities all over the U.S. and Canada (not to mention 54 countries worldwide!)
For about an average of $22 (prices vary by location and student discounts usually available), a fraction of what it would cost to see the same production in the theater, you can see any of their featured productions LIVE STREAMED in HD to movie theaters all over the country. It’s really a wonderful and cost-efficient way to experience this amazing art form from one of if not the best opera theaters in the world.
If you missed today’s LIVE broadcast of this lovely comedy, you can catch the ENCORE showing November 17th! To find a theater near you that is cooperation with The Met broadcasts check out THE MET LIVE IN HD WEBSITE and follow the instructions for your respective country to see where and when it’s playing near you!
And if you are curious for a little teaser, check out these highlights from the show!
ACT 1 EXCERPT – Netrebko, Polenzani, Kwiecien
UNA FURTIVA LAGRIMA – Matthew Polenzani
ACT 2 Duet – Netrebko, Polenzani
And for anyone interested in the dates for future HD BROADCASTS we’ve put together a handy go-to schedule for you to mark your calendars!
◊ Post written by KZJ