Teatro Real de Madrid 2019-20 Review: L’Elisir d’Amore
Javier Camarena Makes History In Unforgettable EveningBy Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Javier del Real)
He came, he saw, and he conquered. All in one day.
Mexican tenor Javier Camarena was only involved with the Teatro Real de Madrid’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” on Nov. 9. It is a role that he had not taken on in seven years, but there was no doubt from the moment he opened his mouth, that this was going to be HIS night. He did not disappoint.
One cannot overlook the biggest challenge facing him in appearing for one night: Damiano Michieletto’s demanding staging.
When a singer steps in for a single performance, even if it was scheduled in advance, he gets a few rehearsals with a director’s assistant and, if he is lucky, a few hours with some of the soloists. In this case, we’re talking about a production where the whole cast and chorus is always in motion, with hundreds of fixed actions, props and positions. They shower, apply sun tan lotion, jump and roll on the beach, bathe in foam, etc. If Camarena was insecure about this tremendous challenge he did not show it. In fact he grew over the difficulties, and performed the funniest interpretation of the clumsy but cute Nemorino that I have seen.
He interacted with his colleagues, jumping, falling, and dancing as if he had been rehearsing the production for a month. Camarena transmitted this energy and talent to the whole cast, as Sabina Puèrtolas and Bora Quiza gave out one of their best interpretations to date.
Doing It All
As you enter the theater, you see a beach at sunrise, with a closed beach bar, sun beds and umbrellas, two huge palm trees and a Baywatch tower. Before the short overture begins, an elderly couple arrives, each taking their places in two of the sun beds. The elderly woman stands up and begins to practice some Yoga exercises as Nemorino rushes in, stumbles and drops all the umbrellas and bags he was carrying. He quickly picks up all his stuff and begins rearranging the beach as Giannetta runs in madly to open the bar.
Little by little the chorus enters the stage, singing “Bel conforto al miei titori” while setting their towels, lying down, playing volleyball, playing with rackets, ordering at the bar, or playing the popular Spanish game card: “Mus.”
Adina comes in wearing a fashionable bathing suit and sunglasses and then the action freezes as Nemorino sings his first aria: “Quanto e bella,” which Camarena interpreted with delicacy and emotion, managing the central tessitura and coloring every phrase and dynamic, such as his “essa legge,” with resignation. Camarena smelled Adina’s towel and sighed as he took on the final cadenza which ended on a clear high A natural; he then embraced Adina with the towel, but clumsily dropped half of his lotion on Adina at the end of the aria.
Even when he wasn’t singing, Camarena was always in action. He threw away Belcore’s sailor uniform in the garbage and even threw sand in his direction as he sang of jealousy. He began the duet “Una parola…chiedi all’aura” by rearranging the hoses that Belcore used to wet all the people around him at the end of the previous scene. He cleaned the sand with a rake, always maintaining his immaculate and clear Italian diction and giving emphasis to his emotions. One such instance included the way he sang “Eh che m’importa” with great rage. His lyrical momentum developed further when he answered Adina with the floating melody “Chiedi al rio,” singing with long legato lines full of crescendos and diminuendos, handing his Adina a gift wrapped in a bright green paper.
Then after 35 minutes of non-stop singing, the tenor got a short rest while Dulcamara sang his entrance scene. Camarena returned for the “Elisir” duet where he was at his funniest, dancing and imitating Dulcamara’s movements. At another moment he shook the bottle of “Elisir” while moving his hips in rhythmic circles. During his ensuing scene with Adina, Camarena imitated a seal, swimming backwards or hugging the big Baywatch umbrella while singing “E sul ti pur la barbara” and then teasing his beloved with two floats in the shape of a lobster and a dolphin.
Later, Camarena sang with a pathetic disappointment during “Quest’oggi no,” before surrendering and begging during the melancholic “Adina credimi.”
In the duet with Belcore, Camarena interpolated the only two high C’s of the night, the first one at the end of the coloratura section, “ Dulcamara Io tosto,” receiving a spontaneous applause from the audience. The second one, which was equally memorable, came at the ending of the duet.
When he next appeared, Camarena’s Nemorino was completely drunk. He climbed on top of a pile of sun beds, stumbling on the top of them as he stripped off his pants until he was only in his underwear. He moved about wildly, eventually wind up inside the big inflatable wedding cake which dominates the stage. At the climax of his scene, Camarena left the stage while dancing to some crazy rock and tango steps; he even added in some choreography from the 90s hit “Macarena.” The audience raved with applause for the irresistible humor.
Then came the most memorable moment of the night.
Everyone who goes to see this opera is always waiting to see what happens with “Una Furtiva lagrima.” It is not the most challenging of arias. Vocally, it is consistent with the overall approach to the role, remaining in the central part of the tenor’s voice without ever going higher than an A flat.
But the difficult lies in the interpretation. The voice is completely exposed above a light orchestration. As such, the vocal line should be completely pure and the attack of the notes precise. Camarena dominates both of these aspects easily, but he also paid attention to every single dynamic detail in the score, including all the crescendoes and diminuendos, piannisimi and “dolce” marked.
When the aria started with the arpeggios in the harps you could hear people getting readjusted in their seats, preparing for what was to come. When the aria came to its conclusion with the interpolated high A natural on “di piú non chiedo,” Camarena rejoiced and prolongated the silence before the “cadenza;” you could not even hear people breathe in the audience as everyone waited his ensuing notes. After the cadenza, there was another moment of suspense before the forte “si puó morir,” and another silence followed by the piannisimo “si puó morir” on a G flat which disappeared magically in the air. The last long silence came before the immaculate mezza di voce on “D’amor,” further prolonging the last whispering note with the soft chords of the orchestra. For a moment everyone in the audience remained hypnotized. But when they finally came to, they delivered the biggest outburst of adoration one could imagine.
Camarena held his position, looking up at the roof of the “Bar Adina” for the first minutes of applause, but then eventually faced the audience. This only encouraged them to grow louder. While Camarena stayed in character as much as he could, just nodding slightly with his head, the applause just kept on coming. After a few moments, Camarena and the conductor exchanged glances and everyone knew what was going to happen – a visibly moved Camarena sang “Una furtiva lagrima” again, and this time he rode the adrenaline from the ovation to an even more visceral interpretation.
It seems that making history is part of Camarena’s signature as an artist. He was the first singer to give and encore in two different performances of “La Fille du Régiment” in 2014, also in Madrid. Camarena was also involved in another unexpected encore which happened during a performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor” in July 2018 with Lisette Oropesa, when the whole cast repeating the famous sextet “Chi mi frena.” And that’s just in Madrid. He has also made history in other theaters, most recently in New York when he delivered the first encore in a Live in HD broadcast, also for “La Fille du Régiment.”
Uplifting Cast Members
Spanish soprano Sabina Puértolas took on the role of Adina. She has a lirico-leggera voice, with a dark, round timbre and well-supported low register. She also possesses sparkling high notes, something which she showed off in this role with its two octaves of tessitura from low C to high C; she also added a high D on the phrase “m’ascolta” in Act two before her duet with Dulcamara.
Adina could be tricky for some leggeras that are not strong in the lower register, but Puèrtolas proved more than adept for its challenges with entrance aria “Benedette queste carte…della crudele Isota.” Here, she showcased bright coloratura and several ascensions to high B naturals, with the added challenge of doing a fitness routine courtesy of Michieletto’s direction.
In the second act, Adina’s tessitura expands and the music becomes more serious, specially in her aria and caballeta “Prendi per me sei libero…il mio rigor dimentica.” In this particular performance, Puértolas had the added pressure of singing the famed aria right after Camarena’s historic encore. But instead of shrinking before the challenge, Puértolas was inspired by her colleague and delivered a rendition of the aria full of such emotion that she also got a huge ovation when she finished. This passage is very hard to sing as Donizetti wrote an interval of two octaves from high C to low C. The soprano sang effortlessly, proving her amazing control over the her expansive range.
She also proved to be a devoted artist as her Adina has to shower, do fitness routines, dance, and swing in foam in this production. She is such a good actress that she also delineated a character arc for Adina from a spoiled, childish and cruel woman in the first act to a beloved and tender one at its close. One moment highlights her immersion in the role. At one point, the spotlight above her failed and so she improvised by jumping into Belcore’s, drawing out some good laughs.
Belcore, the arrogant sailor, was brilliantly portrayed by young Spanish baritone Borja Quiza. He delivered the quick, bright coloratura of his role with depurated technique and elegantly managedt the high tessitura of his role which is constantly around high F. He interpolated a high G natural at the end of his entrance aria “Come paride vezzoso” and interpreted Michilietto’s direction bravely, especially in stripping to a swimsuit before showering everyone around him with a hose. He captured the idea of this arrogant, latin lover by adding very good disco and funky movements into Donizetti’s music.
Romanian bass Adrian Sampetrean sung the role of the dark figure Dulcamara, who in this production is a drug dealer. Sampetrean proved that this cheery role can be sung with a big dark voice, all while providing great comic timing. His singing was depurated, in style, and with a secure high register as he interpolated several high F sharps on such lines as “Ah! di patria il dolce afetto.” He portrayed this character as funny and sweet, but also as mischievous and abusive.
Adriana González’s Giannetta was vibrant, as was the Chorus of the Teatro Real, who were constantly alive onstage, whether they were dancing, playing volleyball or cards.
Italian conductor Gianluca Capuano offered a version of the score with the traditional cuts in the repetition of the duets and cabalettas, but his music-making sounded fresh and full of life, tending toward fast tempi in cabalettas and concertantes.
It was very clever and funny that he decided to include Wagner’s “Tristan chord” every time “Isotta” was mentioned during recitatives; other famous melodies that we could added into the bass-continuo included Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and the “Radetzky’s march” by Strauss.
There is no secret that Damiano Michieletto’s staging is very physical and that his production is set on an Mediterranean beach using hyper realistic sets.But his conception works masterfully well, featuring no contradiction with the libretto, and providing the perfect atmosphere to make this opera buffa not only frenetic and funny, but believable and socially relevant.
Michieletto’s idea that the fake magic Elisir is a drug, one which Nemorino needs more of, is very clever. His surprising twist plot to conclude the opera is also sensational. The police arrives and Dulcamara drops his bag full of drugs by the visibly drunk Belcore; as such, it is the sailor who gets arrested.
In sum, it is arguably the best production of “L’Elisir d’amore” circulating right now and arguably Michieletto’s finest moment as well.
In sum, it was an unbelievable evening of opera. In addition to a top-notch cast under brilliant direction, Javier Camarena’s history-making performance is simply something impossible to forget.