L'elisir d'amore -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/22/09
Calleja, Cabell, Vassallo, Alaimo, Huang / Benini
From one perspective -- that of much, I believe, of the audience -- this performance a month ago was a revelation, the discovery or confirmation of a major tenor voice of boundless sonic and musical potential. From another, it was something of a disappointment for being no more than that.
Soprano Nicole Cabell was the 2005 Cardiff winner, but her performance as Adina was not much encouragement for her having the eventual superstar success of Karita Mattila (whose inaugural win way back in 1983 has done much to legitimate the competition), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (1993), or -- soon -- Anja Harteros (1999). Pitch issues took a while to settle down and her basic sound I found, frankly, unnaturally darkened and a bit grating, but most alarming was her general unwillingness to engage with the role.
Adina does not take an intense, technically sophisticated singing actress like Angela Gheorghiu (Cabell's immediate predecessor in the revival) to do justice -- though Gheorgiu has done great things in the role. Like other classic "-ina" parts (e.g. Zerlina, Rosina, Norina -- but not Amina, heroine of the big rustic hit of the year before Elisir's premiere), she's a fairly straightforward coquette, blessed with enough charm to risk abusing its power. But that doesn't make her one-dimensional: the whole interest of the coquette character is in the interplay of the true and the mannered, and Donizetti and Romani have left a soprano plenty to work off for both. (In fact, the whole story is of two suitors, each embodying one side of the duality within Adina. She is forced to choose and discovers, perhaps to her surprise, that she prefers true feeling.) But each singer must still use what they've given her.
Take, for example, the play-within-the-play: the little wedding-drama at the beginning of Act II. Adina and Dulcamara enact a little tale of a virtuous gondolier girl rejecting the advances of an old lech in favor of her poor lover, but it's in the form of a humorously regular barcarolle -- and sung at her own unserious wedding! In the right hands (and Ruth Ann Swenson was terrific here) this is a truly delectable segment, my favorite comic bit of the opera, but it goes for nothing here. Cabell's Adina just seems bored and detached, Cabell herself fails to savor the vocal opportunity, and -- well, Dulcamara can't carry the duet by himself.
Nor can Nemorino carry the entire show, though Joseph Calleja gave it a good shot. I've written much about him before, and I won't try to describe his instrument yet another time. Enough to say that on the night it sounded like the unquestionably significant thing it is. His generally grand and ardent lines were a bit clipped by coordination hiccups (in this regard the show sounded like what it was: Calleja's first and only time in this production, probably with minimal rehearsal) and a certain restlessness that's appeared in his singing this season, breaking the old-style, nearly-decadent composure and firmness of underlying time that he's shown before (most recently in Macbeth). Whether the latter is a phase in his singing or just some difference of conductors, I'm not sure. Still, a remarkable display.
There is very little clowning in Calleja's stage persona, nor much of the raw everyman appeal of a Pavarotti. But he still made Nemorino work, not so much as a good-hearted village idiot but one too earnest and naive for plain success at love, both hapless and dignified at once.
The tenor role is known for the one big concluding aria, but Nemorino is onstage for much of the opera, with quite a lot to sing. This is fortunate, because the rest of the cast (including, as mentioned, Cabell) didn't inspire: Simone Alaimo's Dulcamara was, I thought, its only other commendable part. Franco Vassallo has all the strutting mannerisms of a great Belcore and none of the vocal or personal impact. His Sergeant thus seemed more of a buffoon than Nemorino, spoiling the balance of the story. Ying Huang, the over-elaborating backup Amor in Orfeo, was reasonably charming in her tiny part as the head of the village girl chorus: switching her with Cabell might not have been a bad idea. Conductor Maurizio Benini did decently, allowing the Met orchestra players to phrase with their usual feeling in the two great closing arias.
If you missed it, Hoffmann isn't so far off.