There was only one question on everyone's lips: would Roberto Alagna, one-time operatic pin-up now pushing fifty, still have the chops to pass muster as the young, gullible, lovelorn hero of Donizetti's glorious opera buffa, L'elisir d'amore (‘The elixir of love')? The answer was a resounding yes, as the French tenor romped through the production's physical demands with a comic energy that knew no bounds. He leapt around the set like a puppy on uppers. So: acting: tick; character: tick; youthful appeal: tick; voice: erm…
In fact the famous tonsils worked pretty well, but the passing years are seeing Alagna's vocal cords trade youthful gold for middle-aged steel. The tone, while still agreeable, sounded laboured in the higher register, and more than once he needed a run-up to his top notes. Even so, he turned in a proper star performance and overcame a passing vocal glitch with consummate professionalism. 'Una furtiva lagrima' brought the house down, inevitably, while his buffo duet with Ambrogio Maestri's delicious, pitch-perfect quack doctor, Dulcarama, was a tour de force from both singers.
Few conductors know their way round the bel canto repertoire better than Bruno Campanella, so his lumpish account of this froth-filled score was a puzzle. It was certainly through no fault of a committed Royal Opera House Orchestra that Alagna and his colleagues found themselves projecting vocal lines and visual comedy through a beat that bordered on the plodding.
The locale imagined by director Laurent Pelly for the tale of young Nemorino's dependence on a not-so-magic elixir of love is a village in southern Italy, circa nineteen-fifty-five. It has been designed by Chantal Thomas with super-realistic flair and arrives stacked with bicycles and bales of hay. Against this backdrop Pelly's jolly production, now in its third Covent Garden incarnation after a trio of Paris appearances, is as sun-drenched as an ad for olive oil, although Aleksandra Kurzak's alluring Adina is clearly no virgin. The sexy young land owner has a wanton streak reminiscent of Carmen herself, and woe betide any man who loves her. In Pelly's reading Adina's interest in Fabio Capitanucci's strutting military sergeant Belcore is purely opportunistic: he is Escamillo to Alagna's Don José. However, this being a gentle comedy rather than a febrile tragedy, true love carries the day and the only killing is that made by Dulcamara at the credulous villagers' expense.
Kurzak is a feisty soprano whose Susanna and Rosina (in Mozart and Rossini's respective Figaro operas) are roles that fit her like a glove but who, as a bel canto singer, has a high tessitura that is neither 'bel' nor bell-like. The notes were all there but they were functional rather than refulgent. Capitanucci, a resonant bass-baritone, is on the stolid side and he missed the comic heart of his role (though his little-and-large sidekicks were a hoot) – unlike the great Maestri, who was hilarious throughout and vocally fabulous. As with his Falstaff earlier this year, Maestri's every appearance onstage was a draught of pure delight. I don't know what he puts in that elixir of his, but it works for him so I'm up for a bottle.
- Mark Valencia