NEW YORK, N.Y. - That most endearing of all comedies, Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore," opened the Metropolitan Opera season on Monday night in a modest new production made memorable by an outstanding cast.
Soprano Anna Netrebko, headlining her second consecutive opening night here, starred as Adina, the wilful but kind-hearted farm owner who toys with the affections of the peasant Nemorino for most of the opera, until she finally confesses her affection.
She was lovely to listen to and riveting to watch, as always, but the triumph of the evening was tenor Matthew Polenzani's performance as the lovesick Nemorino. In a role identified with the likes of Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti, Polenzani gave his finest performance yet at the Met. His full-throated singing was imbued with sweetness and warmth, and in his many soft phrases he caressed the vocal line with great delicacy. All these qualities combined to make his show-stopping aria, "Una furtiva lagrima," especially winning.
Polenzani is also noticeably slimmer than in recent seasons, a fact that enhanced his delightfully relaxed and animated comic performance.
Providing stellar support were two baritones: Mariusz Kwiecien, as the self-admiring Sergeant Belcore who competes for Adina's affections; and bass Ambrogio Maestri as the lovable quack, Doctor Dulcamara, who sells Nemorino the fake potion that he thinks will win Adina's heart. Kwiecien, dashing and arrogant, sang with rich tone and put on a fine display of rapid-fire patter in his second-act duet with Nemorino. Maestri savored every syllable of the buffo role of Dulcamara, and his high notes rang out with unusual vigour. In the small role of Adina's friend Giannetta, soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird chirped becomingly.
As for Netrebko, she reined in her increasingly voluptuous voice remarkably well, matching her colleagues with sparkling coloratura. Still, the effort showed at times, and it's no surprise that she recently told The Wall Street Journal she is giving up the "-ina" roles, a reference to soubrette parts like Adina that are written for lighter lyric sopranos. Her future clearly lies in the more dramatic heroines of Verdi, Puccini — and even Wagner, since she plans to sing Elsa in "Lohengrin" in four years.
The production, directed by Bartlett Sher with sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber, was pleasant to look at and surprisingly traditional, given Sher's reputation for quirkiness. The Met badly needed a new production, since the previous one was more than 20 years old and looked skimpy even when new. This one may be not much more than serviceable, but it's an improvement.
There were to be sure one or two odd touches — like the black top hat Adina wore at times. Perhaps it symbolized her domineering side, since she discarded it when she succumbed to Nemorino's charms.
And there was an annoyingly long pause between scenes in Act 1 as the action moved from Adina's farm to the town square. In Act 2 the set change was handled more deftly as stagehands in costume removed the furnishings of a barn and replaced them with a courtyard and an outdoor field while the music continued.
Maurizio Benini conducted the orchestra with a sure sense of bel canto style and kept the score bubbling merrily along.
From one point of view, "L'Elisir" was an odd choice for a Met opening, since it has neither the novelty nor the spectacle usually associated with a gala occasion. Yet, really, what better way to kick off the season than with a tuneful, humane comedy that sends the audience out of the opera house smiling.
There are nine more performances this season, with the matinee on Saturday, Oct. 13, to be televised live in HD to movie theatres around the world.