Woman on top: Review: Opera: L'Elisir d'Amore Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture
Traditionally, of course, it's the tenor's show. Caruso set the precedent. All eyes are on Nemorino, all ears on that aria. "Una furtiva lagrima" is the elixir of life to Donizetti's elixir of love. But when the soprano is Angela Gheorghiu, the object of Nemorino's desires becomes ours also. The focus shifts, the feisty Adina comes to the fore, and the lyric aspects of Donizetti's lovable score acquire a whole new dynamic. It isn't just her riveting stage presence, her natural charm, or even the sheerly beautiful quality of the voice - as even and as distinctive as they come. It's the way she wears the style, the way she carries it, so lightly that you almost don't notice how completely Adina's capriciousness is written into the role.

Donizetti wrote it quickly. The whole opera in little more than a month. It fair chortles along (with a little help from conductors like Evelino Pido, the live wire at the helm of this revival). The geniality is in the spontaneity. And that's one of the qualities that has made Gheorghiu a star. You simply don't hear the technique, the artistry, at work. If there's a beautiful phrase to be made, she'll make it. But never for its own sake. It has to mean something. Is she not blowing gently into Nemorino's ear when she sings of those communicating zephyrs in Act 1? So why not work the vibrato, the engaging flutter in the voice? She knows how to tease, this Adina, she knows how to use the coloratura, to offer the sound and then take it away. And she knows how to command. "I'll make him pay," she sings, one big phrase carried effortlessly from the top to the bottom of the register. And how significant that it's a similarly dramatic plunge down the octave that marks her final confession of love. Gheorghiu really goes for that.

So where does that leave poor Nemorino? Somewhat in the shade, for once. After Alfredo Kraus and Luciano Pavarotti (the last two distinguished names to pass through this 1975 John Copley production), and alongside Gheorghiu, Jose Bros - a pint-sized Catalan tenor - sounds decidedly over- parted. The voice can and does fill-out, open-up, under pressure, but that's not what most of Nemorino's music is about. I should like to hear him in a smaller house where his slender, reedy timbre might assume more colour. It didn't have the reach or resonance for Covent Garden; the dryness of the acoustic only served to foreshorten it. Still, he sang the aria simply and affectingly, seeking pathos not applause from the final stanza.

Doctor Dulcamara is all about seeking applause, of course, but to his credit, Bruno Pola kept the buffo elements well within the bounds of acceptable embarrassment. Not so the Sergeant Belcore of Natale De Carolis, whose vocal inadequacies somewhat baffled me. Has he really sung Figaro at the Met? Well, put it down to a bad night, but from his very first entry there were notes that didn't speak, phrases that didn't scan, runs that failed to articulate. And no bottom register to speak of. Even toy soldiers - and that's the inference of Copley's staging - have more voice than this.

Still, he looked well enough in the context of Beni Montresor's Pollock Toy Theatre designs - a retinal overdose of blameless candy colours bleached out by far too much sunshine. Once they were charming, now they're cute. The action, such as it is, is mostly restricted to the scene changes, where we are invited to gaze wide-eyed at the transformations and wonder at the innocence of the deception. But then, do we really expect too much more from an opera whose plot hinges on the intoxications of a cheap Bordeaux?

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