Sunday, April 28, 2013

My dark history with the rollicking opening of Act II of Donizetti's "Elixir of Love"


At the Met this past October, conductor Maurizio Benini (with baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as the blustering Sgt. Belcore) seemed to think the thing to do with this wonderful little chorus that opens Act II of L'Elisir d'amore is to slam-bang your way through it. I think we've already heard a better solution.

by Ken

Partway through the spring trimester of my junior year in college I stopped going to classes. Just stopped clean. Oh, it wasn't an intentional class stoppage at the outset. It just felt better not going than going. After a while, though, it became a clean break. I knew there would be consequences, and I decided I would deal with them when the time came. (Ironically, by the time the time came, the entire fall trimester, during which I re-demonstrated my ability to discharge my academic responsibilities, had come and gone. I detected a whiff of irony in the righeous wrath that descended at this remove in time, but nobody else involved was in irony-detection mode.)

I don't want to point fingers here, but the principal activity with which I filled those now-blissfully-freed-up class hours was listening to a recording I happened just to have acquired at the college bookstore: the very recording of Donizetti's Elixir of Love to which we happen to have been listening, and in particular to the opening of Act II.


L'ELISIR D'AMORE IS THE EARLIER OF
DONIZETTI'S TWO COMIC MASTERPIECES


Don Pasquale (1843) is undoubtedly the more urbane and sophisticated,, but I don't know that I could rate it any deeper, more moving, or more satisfying than the country-bumpkinish L'Elisir (1832). If we start by getting that infernal idea of "better" or "worse" out of our heads, I think we can already hear the strikingly different ways in which the two pieces work just from their orchestral introductions -- a prelude in the case of L'Elisir, a fuller-fledged overture in the case of Don Pasquale.

First let's hear the Prelude and jolly opening chorus of L'Elisir d'amore.

DONIZETTI: L'Elisir d'amore: Prelude and Opening Chorus
[We're by a riverbank at the entrance to the farm of ADINA, where jolly harvesters from the village are noting that the scorch of love's flame is even harder to protect against than that of the overhead midday sun.]

Antonella Bandelli (s), Giannetta; Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Gabriele Ferro, cond. DG, recorded November 1986

Renza Jotti (s), Giannetta; Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, cond. Live performance, June 1967

Angela Arena (s), Giannetta; Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond. EMI, recorded August 1966

NOW HERE'S THE DON PASQUALE OVERTURE . . .

. . . performed first by that wise old hand Tullio Serafin (who in fact recorded a complete L'Elisir, from which I'm afraid we're not going to hear today; for this post I've made one of my periodic "no LPs") and then in a performance from a complete Don Pasquale conducted by Gabriele Ferro; note the bat-out-of-heck tempos he feels it necessary to adopt at the start and finish to generate excitement.

DONIZETTI: Don Pasquale: Overture


Philharmonia Orchestra, Tullio Serafin, cond. EMI, recorded Apr. 16, 1961

Orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon, Gabriele Ferro, cond. Erato, recorded Mar. 1-7, 1990


IT WASN'T A DEEPLY THOUGHT-OUT PURCHASE,
THAT IMPULSE BUY OF THE 1966 EMI L'ELISIR


It wasn't a deeply thought-out purchase. Those were still the days when I was trying to limit myself to a single recording per opera (ha!), and I would already have owned the budget-price Seraphim LP reissue of the earlier EMI L'Elisir conducted by Tullio Serafin. It's not that the opera was yet a great passion of mine, and the newer EMI set hadn't received especially enthusiastic reviews. What's more, when I saw it that day -- a rainy one, I'm imagining --at the college bookstore, it would have been priced significantly above my normal savvy-record-shopper's expected price.

And yet, and yet . . . .

It must have been marked down from the bookstore's normal too-rich-for-my-blood prices, and . . . what the heck, I needed some kind of pick-me-up.

You already know the result. I suppose it's possible that I might have stopped going to classes anyway. They were driving me crazy with slightly different kinds of boredom. But if I had stopped going to classes anyway, I wouldn't have been nearly so well entertained as I was by that charming L'Elisir recording.

It wasn't (and isn't) a great performance, but it is a performance of sorts, by singers who all bring pertinent credentials to their roles, with a conductor who may not have been known for conductorial genius but who by gosh knew how to keep a performance moving toward real musico-dramatic destinations. In the musical examples that follow, I like to think you'll be able to hear these sympathetic qualities, and how they make the music stand proud. L'Elisir performed as a star vehicle or a sappy bucolic romance can seem cheap and barely bearable, as I'm afraid pretty much happened for me by the time Luciano Pavarotti, Kathleen Battle, and James Levine made a thing of the opera (earlier, Luciano's genuine charm had carried him a good way through the role; you want to look at the earlier of his two Met videos, with Judith Blegen as Adina), but get the angle remotely right and it rewards you with the achingly tender hopes and dreams of Nemorino, the more shrewdly practical hows-and-whats of Adina, and the assorted urgencies of the passing-through Belcore and Dulcamara and the going-nowhere villagers.

For example, Friday night we heard the quack Dr. Dulcamara's entrance spiel for his phony-baloney patent medicines. Here's how it goes in the 1966 EMI recording.

L'Elisir d'amore: Act I, Entrance of Dr. Dulcamara
[For texts, see Friday night's preview post.]

Renato Capecchi (b), Dr. Dulcamara; Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond. EMI, recorded August 1966


I SUPPOSE ONE ATTRACTION OF THE EMI L'ELISIR
WOULD HAVE BEEN MARIO SERENI AS SGT. BELCORE


As I've mentioned before, the smoothly nappy-voiced baritone had been the Figaro of my first Met performance, a Barber of Seville with him in the title role, Mildred Miller (best-known as the much-underappreciated mezzo soloist of Bruno Walter's much underappreciated radiant final recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde) as Rosina, and George Shirley as Count Almaviva -- a cast whose equal I would be thrilled to reencounter today. The strutting Sgt. Belcore is a sort of hinterland version of the preening Roman military figure Miles Gloriosus.

SORRY, I WHIFFED ON PROVIDING TEXTS FOR THIS POST

I just wasn't up to it, and I was unable to track down a free online translation of the L'Elisir libretto. I have to believe they exist, and sometimes I find them, but if anyone has any tips for tracking them down, please share.

L'Elisir d'amore: Act I, Entrance of Sgt. Belcore, "Come Paride vezzoso"


Giuseppe Taddei (b), Sgt. Belcore; Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, cond. Live performance, June 1967

Mario Sereni (b), Sgt. Belcore; Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond. EMI, recorded August 1966


THIS IS THE CLASSIC STORY OF THE UPRIGHT PEASANT
WHO LOVES THE BEAUTIFUL LAND-OWNER . . .


. . . who barely knows he's alive until he buys a love potion, the celebrated potion of Queen Isolde, from the aforementioned Dr. Dulcamara. The idea came to Nemorino from Adina herself.

L'Elisir d'amore: Act I, Duo, Adina-Nemorino, "Benedette queste carte!" . . . "Della crudele Isotta"


Renata Scotto (s), Adina; Carlo Bergonzi (t), Nemorino; Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, cond. Live performance, June 1967

Kathleen Battle (s), Adina; Luciano Pavarotti (t), Nemorino; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, James Levine, cond. DG, recorded May and Sept. 1989

Mirella Freni (s), Adina; Nicolai Gedda (t), Nemorino; Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond. EMI, recorded August 1966

The good doctor is only too happy to sell a bottle of Bordeaux to this twit, warning him that it won't take effect until tomorrow -- giving him enough time to put some distance between this cowtown and himself. Here, later in the act, is Nemorino biding his time, knowing that come tomorrow Adina will be his.

L'Elisir d'amore: Act I, Duo, Nemorino-Adina, "Lalalalalala""


Carlo Bergonzi (t), Nemorino; Renata Scotto (s), Adina; Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, cond. Live performance, June 1967

Luciano Pavarotti (t), Nemorino; Kathleen Battle (s), Adina; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, James Levine, cond. DG, recorded May and Sept. 1989

Nicolai Gedda (t), Nemorino; Mirella Freni (s), Adina; Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond. EMI, recorded August 1966


EVENTUALLY NEMORINO DOES WIN ADINA'S
HEART AND HAND, BUT NOT VIA THE POTION

No, unbeknownst to Nemorino, word has circulated around the village of an inheritance that has come his way, and dramatically altered Adina's impression of his suitability as a mate. It's in the middle of this fog that, you'll recall, he notices "a furtive tear" in her eye. We've already heard a number of recordings of one of the most famous of tenor arias.

Act II, Aria, Nemorino, "Una furtiva lagrima"
A furtive tear
welled up in her eye.
Those carefree girls
she seemed to envy.
Why should I look any further?
[1:39] She loves me, yes, she loves me.
I can see it, I can see it.

To feel for just one moment
the beating of her dear heart!
To blend my sighs
for a little with hers!
Heavens, I could die;
I ask for nothing more.
I could die of love.
-- English translation by Kenneth Chalmers

Enrico Caruso, tenor. Victor, Nov. 26, 1911

Jussi Bjoerling, tenor; Stockholm Radio Orchestra, Sten Frykberg, cond. Broadcast performance, Oct. 3, 1952

Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor; Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond.
 Decca, recorded 1955

Nicolai Gedda (t), Nemorino; Rome Opera Orchestra, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond. EMI, recorded August 1966

José Carreras, tenor; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, John Pritchard, cond. Live performance, Jan. 7, 1976

Plácido Domingo, tenor; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, John Pritchard, cond. CBS-Sony, recorded 1977

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