Review written in collaboration with David Salazar, Editor-in-Chief
Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” is often portrayed as an innocent tale of a country bumpkin often getting the girl of his dreams. Most of the time, Nemorino’s strife emphasizes his luck in landing his beloved, first through the fact that his beloved Adina does, in fact, love him and simply needs a spark to spur her on to him. Secondly, is a deus ex machina device of him suddenly becoming attractive because of his sudden inheritance of great wealth.
It is all charming fun, but it often leaves the major characters rather flat and barebones against jubilant music that its composer concocted.
But the Opera di Firenze and Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, creating a production of the famed opera at the Palazzo Pitti, put on a refreshingly new take on the opera. And it centers on sexuality. Nemorino’s sexuality specifically.
Focusing on Character Development
Directed by Pier Francesco Maestrini, the production acutely follows Nemorino’s turn from literal outsider to a sexy hero that everyone wants a piece of.
The two acts of the opera take place in Adina’s ranch and then a bullring, the first setting apt at emphasizing Adina’s power over everyone around her, the latter expressing the conflict between the four major characters and their deceits.
While his beloved Adina strikes everyone with her sexual prowess, soprano Anna Maria Sarra’s legs on full display, Nemorino is covered up in a yellow chicken costume that not only makes him look absolutely ridiculous but literalizes his outsider status. Tenor Giuseppe Valentino Buzza furthers this sense of alienation by making Nemorino’s insecurity shine through with his timid movements and delicate singing throughout the opening parts of the opera. He possesses a glorious tone, but he withholds the full power of his sound during “Quant è bella.” We feel the yearning from his fine legato, but also sense his futility and lack of courage.
He remains the butt of every joke throughout the first act, particularly with Dulcamara, another shining example of male virility, albeit of the older variety. Arriving in his blue convertible, it is clear from the outset that Alfonso Antoniozzi’s interpretation is that of a wealthy man who does as he pleases, his only care for his pleasure. Throughout their duet, he mocks Nemorino, while the latter’s false hope looking all the more amusing.
The greatest humiliation for Nemorino comes at the end of the first Act as he begs Adina for mercy. But instead, he gets beat and to top things off, all the women in the village strip him down, destroy any dignity he may have had at that point.
From Humiliation to Sexual Icon & Beyond
His character does develop during the second act encounter with Belcore, but this time, instead of treating him like a tool, Belcore has his men strip Nemorino down to his bare essentials. However, instead of humiliating him like at the end of the first act, they redress him as a soldier, altering his personality. They teach him how to show off his prowess, which he will use to great effect during the scene with all the flirtatious women. The transformation is fulfilled by Buzza’s newfound vocal virility, the sound suddenly brighter and more stentorian than in previous scenes.
When he gets his chance to shine with the women, the new Nemorino acts like a true Rockstar, dancing with the women and flirting as if he were… either Belcore or Dulcamara, both successful Don Juan’s in this production.
And yet we get a sense of his gentle nature during the famed “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” the singing here simply exquisite. Buzza, only in his late 20s, showed that he is a true treasure to look out for, sculpting every single phrase of the famed opera with a brightness of tone and a sense of forward movement. Instead of the melancholy, the aria has a sense of excitement building up throughout its opening stanza, ultimately finding resolution in its second half.
Then comes Adina to save her man. At the climax of their scene together, she strips him bare yet again, but this time to finally consume their love, and give him one more transformation – the end of his state of virginity. Nemorino is truly transformed by the end of the opera and Buzza’s intricate performance coupled with solid direction give the character arc and the opera, as a whole, a true sense of depth.
From Power to Compromise
Adina also gets her own kind of arc, but through her own cycles of humiliation. As Nemorino grows in vigor and power, Sarra’s interpretation shows her character at her most sexually appealing in the opening scenes but then losing her grasp on the control over others as her outer shell is no longer as appealing. Her singing throughout the opening aria, during which she narrates the story of “Tristan and Isolde,” is filled with sensuality, the soprano swinging her bare legs about, her voice taking on a silvery tone aimed at seducing. And she retains the raucous sexual manner throughout her interaction with Belcore in the ensuing scenes. But when she finds herself rebuffed by Nemorino in the second act, you could sense her drawing deeper into herself, a sense of insecurity parading over her movements. Her first lines to Nemorino in the final scene were gentle and tender, the first such instances that Sarra utilized such vocal colors in the entire opera. The entire aria was one great plea, the low notes almost mournful, the tempo elastic. The soprano’s free singing here was rather improvisatory at times but added to the impact of Adina suddenly being out of her depth without the complete control of any situation. The juxtaposition of lengthy notes with the quicker sighing rhythms expressed Adina seeming ready to declare her love and then suddenly backing away, an elegant musical insight that few have with the aria. The ensuing cabaletta, as suggested by the “wavy” rhythms in the orchestra, was played up as a sexual act, every high note coloratura nothing more than an extension of Adina’s ecstasy as she straddled her man. She has regained control, but we don’t feel the same level of disunity between the two as we do at the start of the opera. Compromise was in fact possible. Her high notes here were particularly effective, especially the climactic final one, which she held out for a rather long time, capping a true sense of fulfillment for the viewer.
Astute & Predictive (?) Foils
The other two main singers were at their best throughout the night providing solid foils for Nemorino. Arriving with a sports chant, Belcore was narcissism personified, the soldier not so much a buffoon as a force to be reckoned with. Baritone Mario Cassi sang with arguably the biggest sound of any of the artists, a consistent trait throughout the evening. He was rigid and firm, but also capable of elegance, particularly in his entrance aria. But make no mistake, he was no romantic hero and when given the chance to flirt with any woman, he took his chance, regardless of who was around.
Ditto for bass Antoniozzi, whose rich Dulcamara dovetailed Belcore’s qualities, his bass agiler, though no less formidable. In some ways, the two men represented what the future could hold for Nemorino as Belcore was clearly a decade or so his senior and Dulcamara was intended to be older than either. We got a hint of Nemorino’s Don Juan attributes in the scene with all the women and you could see that he was picking up his hints from both Dulcamara and Belcore on how to play with the fairer sex. Whether or not his love for Adina remains true is the big question the opera ultimately leaves us with, though the excitement and euphoria that Maestrini manages at the grand finale leaves the audience breath-taken and excited.
In the pit, Giuseppe La Malfa was equally refreshing, mainly because he led the ensemble quite formidably, the chorus turning into a character in its own right and at times at vocal odds with the main singers during more contentious scenes. His flexibility with the soloists was also inspiring, particularly in creating nuance in the characterizations, as noted during Adina’s final aria. This feat would never have been achieved without the maestro’s sturdy music sense. Props must also go to him for reinstating music that is traditionally cut, such as the major ensemble that follows Nemorino’s “seduction” of the village women.
All in all, this was a truly magical evening of opera and a refreshing and insightful take on an opera often overlooked as a comic tale. It remains as such at the Opera di Firenze, but it also proves that “L’elisir d’amore” can be so much more.