Roberto Alagna has sung the role of the lovesick Nemorino before, but this was his Covent Garden debut in the role. And in a pre-performance interview he described his challenge: he would have to ‘fight with the ghost of his past’ – ie compete with his own best moments.
In strictly musical terms, one would have to admit that he doesn’t measure up: he missed one of his most important top notes, there were times when his voice sounded worn, and his delivery of ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ was little better than OK.
But this didn’t prevent the evening being a sparkling success, because he was always more than a dinky little chap with a lovely voice. He is also a fine actor and an athletic comedian, and with these qualities he made a perfect match for Aleksandra Kurzak’s Adina: I have never seen Donizetti’s tortured little romance so delightfully presented. We had an underpowered Belcore, but Ambrogio Maestri’s Dulcamara was stunningly effective, while conductor Bruno Campanella kept the score’s blend of melodrama, broad comedy, and heartfelt beauty in ideal balance.
Other keys to the success lie in the combination of Chantal Thomas’s Hopper-like designs and Daniel Dooner’s ‘revival direction’ of Laurent Pelly’s original show. In a sense this opera is indestructible, with its ingenious send-up of the love-potion idea in ‘Tristan and Iseult’, and Pelly’s transposition of the plot to the Fifties Italy of Fellini’s ‘Amarcord’ works a treat.
But the joy is in the detail, with the chorus turned into a believably real community, and little dashes of colour – for example, a real dog suddenly belting across the stage – to enliven the rustic charm of the village perspective.
The differing levels of the giant haystack dominating the set are cleverly exploited, and the Dad’s Army duo taking the place of Belcore’s usual platoon become a sight-gag you don’t tire of. And if Alagna both wrings our hearts and makes us laugh, Kurzak bewitches him - and us - with a soubrette performance which she has enormously deepened and enriched since she first sang it in 2007.
This young Polish soprano’s coloratura has such natural ease that one hardly notices it, her phrasing is exquisite, and when her facade cracks and she reveals her vulnerability she’s irresistible. This is the Adina of one’s dreams.