Last winter's new production of L'Elisir d'amore at the Metropolitan Opera in New York was greeted with laughter, some of it inspired by the humorous turns of events in the action, but much provoked by the hyperkinetic hamming of the superstar Luciano Pavarotti, who seemed – despite what, for others, would be a physical deterrent – unable to keep still. The opening-night audience included a large sector of Luciano groupies, complete with outsize campaign buttons; and the tenor seemed to direct his interpretation largely to them.
The question arises: just how funny is Elisir? Donizetti apparently referred to the work as an “opera buffa,” but the first edition of the libretto carries the definition “melodramma giocoso.” A free translation would be something like “light-hearted opera”; but then in the first librettos of Mozart's Don Giovanni that opera was called “dramma giocoso.” “Light-hearted” in this case surely does not allow room for the undeniable seriousness and stern morality of much of the work. And to confuse matters further, in the private handwritten catalogue Mozart kept of his works, he wrote “opera buffa.”
What Elisir clearly is not is a simple comic opera. Donizetti used the term opera buffa to define, for example, his successful L'Ajo nell'imbarazzo, and he described in the same way Olivo e Pasquale, Alina regina di Golconda, and – the most famous – Don Pasquale. Other categories noted by Donizetti are “farsa” (Le convenienze teatrali, for example, and Il campanello) and “opera semiseria,” a genre much favored also by Rossini.
But if Donizetti, Mozart, and others used defining terms loosely, when they sat down to compose, they surely knew what they were doing; and Elisir's subtle fusion of merriment and pathos is remarkable for its coherence, its unity. Once, in a group of opera experts, one melomane asked the others to name the perfect opera. Foolish and impossible challenge, but we fell for it: a friend proposed Carmen, another's candidate was Meistersinger. When I suggested Elisir, I was accused of lowering the tone of the discussion, but I remained firm; and still, hearing even a flawed performance, I find that there is not a note of Donizetti's “jocose opera” that I would want to be deprived of.
Fortunately, the Deutsche Grammophon recording (429 744-2, 2 CDS) that more or less reproduces the Metropolitan production is far closer to the ideal than what I heard in the house. For one thing, the routine imported conductor is replaced, for the discs, by the more skilled James Levine, whose tendency to rush and to hammer points home (I am thinking chiefly of his Verdi in the theater) is in abeyance, and the music is allowed to flow naturally. Similarly, because Pavarotti does not have an audience to mug for, he sings with his old sweetness, and Kathleen Battle not only sparkles in the work's witty scenes but also moves in the moments of tenderness. “Prendi per me sei libero,” that eloquent and seductive hint of nascent love, is meltingly sung; in the theater performance, Pavarotti‘s inappropriate grimaces wrecked Donizetti's effect by causing sycophantic laughing among the groupies. Completing the cast, in the two more conventionally buffo roles, Leo Nucci is a suitably blustering soldier, while Enzo Dara is a funny but wise Dulcamara, with a touch of Don Alfonso-like worldly wisdom. The Met orchestra is, as one might expect, beyond praise.
The Sony recording of Rossini's La gazza ladra (53K 45850 DDD, 3 CDS) takes us to a different world of both composition and performance. Though the composer called this opera simply a “melodramma” – which does not mean melodrama in the Anglo-Saxon sense but is really only another word for “opera” – it is in fact an “opera semiseria;” a hybrid form of musical theater that developed toward the end of the eighteenth century and died out fifty or sixty years later as romantic opera began to take over. As Anselm Gerhard says in his excellent essay in the recording's booklet, the serious half of a semiseria work was kin to the French comédie larmoyante, but the happy ending was a rule, and there were usually also comic characters and a certain amount of horseplay.
The Sony performance of La gazza ladra is “live” in every sense. Recorded during the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, the discs include applause, footsteps on stage, the occasional cough. There is little laughter, but then there is little to laugh about, beyond the simple presence of the always-entertaining thieving magpie of the opera's title, who causes near-tragedy. In fact, La gazza ladra is a dark pastoral. Beginning with the obligatory scene of a rustic banquet, it delves into murky areas of family jealousy, abuse of power, thwarted and perverse passion, and blind injustice. Characteristically, one of the most effective musical moments is a grim march to the scaffold (fortunately, the heroine's progress is truncated as her innocence is proved).
The Pesaro performance, staged in the lovely Teatro Rossini with great sense of period and sensitive attention to the subtle stylistic demands, comes over well on the recording. The RAI Turin orchestra – once one of Italy's national treasures – is no longer the great instrument it was in the days of Mario Rossi (record collectors will remember him from many old Cetra-Soria publications); still, it maintains a more than competent level, and Gianluigi Gelmetti guides it and the singers with assurance. As the long-suffering heroine, Katia Ricciarelli is perhaps a bit more larmoyante than necessary, but she produces some lovely sounds and only very infrequently drops into her familiar all-purpose mournful croon. Samuel Ramey is a splendidly sinister, inhuman Podestà, the image of evil self-importance. As the “good” basso, poor Ninetta's noble father, Ferruccio Furlanetto is more pathetic than noble, but he establishes the necessary contrast. Few of the others in the cast will be recognized by non-Italian operagoers, but I should mention the young tenor William Matteuzzi, who, though not always rhythmically secure, has a youthful, sweet, appealing voice, and Bernadette Manca di Nissa (in the trouser role of Pippo), who possesses sound musicality and a fine instrument. The recording documents one of Pesaro's best recent achievements and should encourage further ventures into the tricky but rich semiseria terrain.
Strangely enough, the Lodoiska of Cherubini, revived and directed by Ricardo Muti at La Scala, makes less effect on record (Sony RSCD 2450/52K 47290, 2 CDS) than it did in the house. The explanation does not lie, as one might think, in the stage production – a Luca Ronconi extravaganza, though less extravagant than some – but rather in the quality of the voices. Cherubini's “comédie héroïque” has a large cast, and for the Milan performances Muti chose mostly young voices. In the Warmth of the great old house, supported by the opera's action and by the alert audience, the artists made a strong impression. Shorn of that visual and ambiental reinforcement, the recorded voices sometimes sound thin, disembodied (the placing of the microphones may have contributed, for this, too, is a “live” recording). Still, the splendor of Cherubini's music and Muti's intense, almost symbiotic attachment to it are there, and the recording is thus not only enjoyable but also invaluable.
What has just been said about the voices does not apply to the crystal soprano of Mariella Devia, who sings the title role. Not always an excit- ing artist to watch, she is irresistible to hear. And like Rossini's Ninetta, her sorely tried innocence is truly affecting. This work, like Fidelio, is a “rescue opera,” another genre that – with Beethoven's masterpiece as the sole exception – has virtually disappeared. The genre also has some troublesome requirements: the mixture of grand music and naked speech (the Scala's French is not always intelligible), the homely characters intermingled with the noble ones, grim torture alternating with romance and exotic setting.
Devia sounds like a heroine worth rescuing, and William Shimell – as her pendant hero – also, for the most part, achieves the right tone. Muti does not allow the sumptuous, supple Scala orchestra to overpower the singers. His case for this opera – like his case for other neglected works by Cherubini – is totally persuasive. The opera has a French elegance, but inside Cherubini's austere figure (the Ingres portrait has created an ineradicable but slightly misleading image) there is, after all, an Italian preromantic. The field of French opera is perhaps the least adequately explored by the record catalog. As Muti advances, intrepid, we may hope that, along with the endless Carmens, there may be some more operas of Cherubini and Italy's other great operatic export, Spontini.