This is the third revival of Laurent Pelly’s L’elisir d’amore of 2007 and, being well acquainted with the production, I took a trip to a live screening to see if this would offer any new insights. If on emerging from the Vue Cinema Piccadilly I felt that the evening had been made by the strength of the performances from this first rate cast, seeing the staging in close-up did offer a remarkably different perspective on a piece that proved to work very well on screen.
The production sets the action in an Italian rural idyll in the 1950s, presumably because this decade is recent enough to retain a certain air of familiarity, but still sufficiently ‘historical’ to maintain many of the societal values that the work originally played on. Act I sees Chantal Thomas’s set piled high with hay bales that create a variety of levels upon which figures can interact and perform their arias. As befitting their differing characters, Nemorino pops up timidly from behind the hay when he first appears, while Belcore rises upright at the top of the pile to make his entrance.
While the bales are in many ways effective, in the flesh they initially take up so much space that they make the stage feel cluttered and devoid of any real purpose. This problem is lessened on screen because differing camera angles create a more multi-faceted and less overwhelming area. Pointing the camera slightly upwards helps us to appreciate the wealth of activity occurring on different tiers, while the act of cutting away from the mass of people to individuals also produces dividends. There are times when the principals are framed in splendid isolation, which enables us to engage with their private thoughts, even during the most exuberant moments of staging.
The one aria that is not so effective is, perhaps surprisingly, ‘Udite, udite, o rustici’. Pelly’s production is very clever in revealing how one individual can command an entire stage by introducing Dulcamara as a lone individual, and then seeing his presence radiate out as he opens up his van and attracts a crowd around him. This overall progression feels less clear when so many shots focus just on Bryn Terfel. On the other hand, the close to Act I can feel weak when seen in the flesh as the chorus sway tentatively from side to side before embarking on an exaggerated march across the stage. In close-up, however, one can see expressions of anxiety on their faces, and sense that they have been somewhat coerced into sharing in the celebrations.
This revival is splendidly acted, and the cinema experience enables all of the principals’ facial expressions to come across clearly. By extension it also offers insights into the opera’s thesis concerning the need to be true to love. We tend to see Adina as in command throughout, but this is not entirely true. When she promises to marry Belcore to spite Nemorino she loses control of the situation as revealed by Belcore bouncing her on his knee as if she were a puppet. As soon as she realises that she does genuinely love Nemorino, however, she has the ability to wrap Dulcamara around her finger, reducing him to embarrassing jiving (which Terfel executes brilliantly) as he vainly attempts to sell her some elixir and perhaps even try his own luck with her.
Although enunciation is not always at a premium among the cast, musically the evening remains strong. L’elisir, with all of its tricky lines and asides, is not an easy opera to keep rhythmically tight throughout, but with the aid of Daniele Rustioni’s firm yet sensitive conducting, the singers respond extremely well to the challenge. Lucy Crowe’s soprano is sweet, smooth and consistent, and she throws herself completely into the role of Adina while revealing some priceless glances. Bryn Terfel, with his wonderful bass-baritone, is a masterly Dulcamara, who instinctively knows how to squeeze every ounce of humour out of the situation. This is never to the detriment of establishing character, however, and Terfel reveals how behind the rough and ready exterior there is a cool, if not cruel, calculating mind. His Dulcamara remains exceedingly likeable, of course, and perhaps that is the point that certain charlatans can win our hearts even when they do not deserve to do so.
Levente Molnár is a fantastic, firm voiced, Belcore, and Kiandra Howarth an excellent Giannetta. As with Roberto Alagna who played Nemorino in the 2012 revival, there is a sense in which Vittorio Grigolo is a dashing tenor who enjoys playing the part of the ‘village dunce’, but there is also a degree of subtlety to his performance. When he falls to his knees in despair in the finale to Act I, the camera points upwards so that he genuinely looks like a small, grief stricken person surrounded by giants. His strong vocal performance is epitomised by ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ in which he instinctively knows when to hold something back, and when to push his voice to the full. In the Royal Opera House pinprick lights descend from the rafters for the aria, and this move proves especially effective in the cinema because stars suddenly seem to appear on the screen from nowhere.
There will be some encore screenings of L’elisir d’amore in selected cinemas over the next few days, while the production continues at the Royal Opera House until 13 December. A trip to either is to be recommended because when one witnesses accomplished performers so obviously enjoying themselves on stage, it becomes impossible not to share in all of the fun they are having.
The Royal Opera House’s L’elisir d’amore will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from 18.50 on 29 November.
For details of encore screenings of L’elisir d’amore and of all screenings in the Royal Opera House’s 2014/15 Live Cinema Season click here.