L'Elisir d'Amore - Royal Opera House, 13 November 2007
In the wake of Rolando Villazón's sicknote to London, could any replacement hope to fill his glossy botines adequately?
Stefano Secco was originally booked as the second stringer Nemorino, and although he doesn't have Villazón's bushbaby charisma (or vocal resources), he does at least share a touching vulnerability which makes it easy to see why he was originally cast. He makes us root for his Nemorino, the ingenuous optimist punching above his weight in his pursuit of the capricious Adina. It's a characterisation that helps accommodate certain of his vocal shortcomings - strain at the top, excessive bleatiness, a tendency to swallow rather than float the pianissimos. It can't conceal the fact though that much of the time, especially at the start, his voice simply wasn't quite big enough.
It was a problem sporadically shared by Aleksandra Kurzak (Adina), though in her case I wondered if she was simply husbanding her resources to make sure she didn't give out before the end. Certainly everything else was exquisite, from the top to bottom bell-like tone to the needle-sharp coloratura. In this production, she's a foxy minx with a soft centre, a part Kurzak wiggled into with the born-to-it sauce of the young Claudia Cardinale. She may not be 100% the finished article yet, but with a virtual block booking at the Royal Opera House for the next couple of years, we will have plenty more opportunities to see how she develops.
The other characters took us further into the realms of slapstick. Paolo Gavanelli's colossal Dulcamara was half Tony Soprano and half Sir Les Patterson, but that huge voice had a natural ease. Ludovic Tézier's Belcore strutted and posed like a wind-up toy soldier, his baritone lightweight but firmly placed and elegant.
Director Laurent Pelly places them in a romanticised fifties Italian village. The stage is for most of the time filled with giant haystacks (no, not that one, though it's an idea, isn't it?) constantly clambered over by the cast, or else a scruffy roadside cafe backing on to an unsanitary-looking washroom. Ancient scooters and Ozzie the jack russell terrier complete the rural idyll, home-made sprigged cotton frocks and flat caps colour the scene.
His cinematic inspiration is emphasised by the screen-like framing of the proscenium arch, the hyper-realism of the sets and the cunning disguise of walls -- the background field recedes into the horizon, and the set appears to continue right out beyond the wings. It's a neat distancing device that brings the rather improbable story up to date but at the same time places it in a fictional world that doesn't over-stretch our credulity.
The chorus, as ever in Pelly productions, were more than just singing bystanders. I think he has a secret rule that no-one can stand still for longer than three seconds. Everyone was forever on the move, pinpoint-choreographed, so the action never seemed to flag.
Mikko Franck maintained a comparably cracking pace with his modest forces. It may not be the greatest orchestral showcase, but you'd soon notice if the band started to sag -- and this one didn't.