Latvian National Opera 2024 Review: The Elixir of Love

By João Marcos Copertino
(Photo credit: Agnese Zeltiņa)

Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” (L’elisir d’amore) is frequently appreciated for its vibrant comedy and charming music. However, this opera offers a depth that goes beyond surface-level amusement, engaging themes of love, illusion, and societal structures in nuanced ways. Traditional productions often miss the deeper layers of the opera, focusing instead on its comedic aspects.

In contrast, Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production sets the opera in post-World War I Italy, a decision that enriches its narrative by providing context for the military presence and the societal ruins depicted on stage. This setting not only preserves the picturesque charm of the past but also introduces a layer of historical poignancy. The ruins symbolize a world that needs reconstruction, mirroring the characters’ quests for love and meaning amidst chaos and loss.

The intellectual endeavors of the characters, particularly their references to classical traditions, gain new significance in this setting. The conspicuous presence of a book on Tristan und Isolde, for example, underscores a yearning for timeless ideals of love and honor, which seem almost lost in the post-war desolation. This yearning reflects a broader cultural search for meaning and continuity in a fractured world.

Moreover, the military presence in Bechtolf’s production is not merely a backdrop but a critical element that reshapes our understanding of the characters, especially Nemorino. Unlike the romanticized soldiers in early nineteenth-century literature, such as Jane Austen’s navy men in “Persuasion,” these post-World War I soldiers embody a more disillusioned and unsettling reality. This shift highlights the precariousness of Nemorino’s situation—had he gone to the front, his fate might have been akin to Uriah’s,  a somber possibility of death that adds gravity to the seemingly light-hearted narrative.

The intermittent drumming in the chorus, a motif that recurs throughout the opera, further accentuates the underlying tension. This drumming serves as a reminder of the war’s aftermath, injecting a sense of foreboding that contrasts with the opera’s comedic elements. Bechtolf’s interpretation brings out the bittersweet essence of “The Elixir of Love,” where love and laughter are tinged with the shadows of recent trauma and the struggle to rebuild. This setting amplifies the significance of the military presence, the intellectual quests of the characters, and the undercurrent of tension, offering a richer, more complex interpretation that resonates with contemporary audiences.

If the seriousness of the staging was instigating to thought, Bechtolf’s main achievement was the physical comedy, especially those moments in silent-film style. Such level of synchrony can be achieved only by devoted professionals who certainly practiced a lot. There was no moment in the opera, however, in which the choreography and coordination of movements occurred at the expense of the drama. More fantastically, the action, instead of making the staging busier, seemed to contribute directly to the meaning. From the “can-canesque” choreography during Dulcamara’s charlatanism—amazing work from the extras, by the way—to Adina’s literally losing ground when singing “Esulti pur la barbara.” Such small elements made the experience extremely compelling dramatically.

In the great comedies of silent film, humor never undermines the emotional effect of the drama. To my mind, perhaps no scene in cinema is more wrenching than the ending of “City Lights,” when the Tramp asks his beloved, “You can see now?” If you do not cry, you have no soul. I think “l’Elisir” shares a similar quality with this great cinema, with the merit that the comic scenes never undermine the seriousness of the drama: “Quanto è bella” is both a pastiche and a serious exercise of self-deprecation; “Una furtiva lagrima” is perhaps happier in its lyrics than in its music; even Belcore’s “Come Paride vezzoso” has a certain melancholy in his ridiculousness. In that regard, Latvian National Opera’s production is particularly successful. It rescues this physicality of comedy without subverting the dramatical implications of Donizetti’s wittiest comedy.

Tenor Mihails Čuļpajevs was a perky, and sometimes even cocky, Nemorino. Filled with the tenor’s posture of self-importance that cannot be taught, Čuļpajevs made the earnest countryside gamin a more heroic figure. He shone specially in the post-bourbon scenes. Vocally, the tenor showcased his resonant voice, privileging the Italian pronunciation. As a result, often his higher notes felt a bit too constrained when in the middle of a phrase with too many consonants. Consonants and a higher register are a tricky pairing: too little, and the words are incomprehensible; too much, and the voice is constrained. Most of the night, Čuļpajevs found a good balance. His arias were all dynamic, more dramatically engaged than necessarily lyrical reflections—serving the great theatrical spectacle in front of us.

Soprano Inga Šļubovska-Kancēviča was perhaps the wittiest of all Adinas. The owner of a particularly flexible instrument, Šļubovska shone more as an actress who can sing under many circumstances than necessarily as a lyrical voice. That is not to say that she did not sing beautifully—she did. Rather, most of the time, I could not even believe she was singing—especially in her more acrobatic moments such as singing while cycling on stage.

And now a very unexpected sentence: Belcore, the beacon of masculinity, was performed by a rather intelligent Rinalds Kandalincevs. Let’s be fair, Belcore is not stupid—or earnest—like Nemorino, but his words of erudition are mostly ironically taking into consideration the character nature. It takes a smart singer to convey such a balance. Baritones are often smart—do not ask me why, they simply are. But they also often tend to rely heavily on their own handsomeness. Kandalincevs found a sweet spot in performing Belcore: instead of stressing the character’s bodily self-assurance, he sang his music—especially the high notes—with focus, but with a certain cynicism that is hard to convey in words. A nice lady seated next to me felt she could not stress enough how unique the impalpable intentional sarcasm of his voice made his performance. Indeed, more than a simple mockery of army masculinity, his Belcore sounded cynical about his own music and knowledge, in a twist that was particularly compelling.

Dulcamara is the comic heart of the opera; his savviness and trickster nature can put a smile on anyone’s face. Peter Kálmán certainly was funny, but also a bit more weary than is usual for the role. Perhaps such physical weariness came from his juxtaposition with particularly jovial dancers. Nevertheless, it was still an especially interesting performance. Clearly pushing his voice for comic relief, the feigner sang the most challenging falsetto in the first stanzas of the second act Barcarole. Likewise, he aimed for similar effects of voice in the finale when he sang from the orchestra seats.

The cast was complemented by a congenial, but perhaps a bit vocally shy Gianetta by mezzo-soprano Laura Kancāne.

The orchestra, under the direction of Mārtiņš Ozoliņš played vividly—mimicking the action. There were, however, some musical cuts that were perhaps unnecessary, most noticeably the redaction of most of the opera’s prelude. Still, it was a particularly pleasing performance with much dramatical relevance and serious physical commitment.


ReviewsStage Reviews