Dark Comedy: L’elisir d’amore at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Donizetti – L’elisir d’amore

Adina – Pretty Yende
Nemorino – Galeano Salas
Belcore – Andrei Zhilikhovsky
Dulcamara – Milan Siljanov
Giannetta – Sarah Gilford

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Francesco Angelico.
Stage director – David Bösch.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, Germany.  Sunday, October 4th, 2020.

As with many lyric theatres, the Bayerische Staatsoper has had to drastically reconsider the opening of its 20-21 season in line with the latest sanitary measures.  This has meant having to cut audience numbers at the house to around 20% of its usual capacity.  For a house that runs pretty much full all year round, this is a drastic change.  The orchestra pit has been raised and now stretches into the Parkett, in order to give the musicians more room, and the seats have been rearranged so that every second row is kept free and a gap of at least one seat is maintained between parties.  Currently, audience members are requested to keep masks on during the performances, and while the vast majority complied with that request, some didn’t.  I must admit to feeling perfectly safe at the house.  There were ample supplies of hand sanitizer and more than enough space to move around the house while maintaining distance.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

At first sight, the main attraction of this revival of David Bösch’s 2009 staging was the presence of Pretty Yende as Adina, surely the leading lyric bel canto soprano around currently.  Around her, the house assembled a very fine cast for this burst of musical sunshine.  In Bösch’s staging, however, the sunshine wasn’t immediately apparent.  He sets the work in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  Soldiers in combat fatigues swagger around the set, even threatening Adina at one point, trying to look up her skirt.  This felt extremely uncomfortable to watch and, rather than illuminating or bring a new relevant perspective, felt at odds with what we heard through the text and music.  Dulcamara appeared on quite a magnificent machine, one that spurted out lights, fire, and in the final scene what appeared to be an alcoholic beverage all over the cast.  Yet, the darkness of the setting, familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Bösch staging, felt completely at odds with the sunniness of the music.  It meant that the cast had to work even harder to get the comedy to work because the setting in which they were performing was so bleak.  This was particularly the case for Sarah Gifford’s Giannetta who was constantly running around the set.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

That said, in Act 2, the performance did start to take wing.  Rather than dampening the comedy, the night sky with heart-shaped constellations at the back of the set seemed to set the scene for something magical.  The magnificent machine had visuals projected onto it that enhanced the action, and the chemistry between Galeano Salas’s Nemorino and Yende’s Adina was unmistakable.  Suddenly, we became aware of the magic of this score and, now more than ever, became aware that even in the darkest place we can find happiness.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Musically, this performance reflected the exceptional standards one finds at this address.  Salas has a delightful, almost old-fashioned, tenor.  The rapid vibrato in this tone gives it a plangency that I found most engaging.  Particularly so in his ‘una furtiva lagrima’ which he sang, elevated above the stage, from a telegraph pole.  He dispatched that celebrated number with long lines, an impeccable legato and a masterful use of dynamics.  I must admit that his intonation did come in and out of focus in places and the voice doesn’t, as yet, turn the corners quite as tidily as it could.  That said, he was incredibly game in how he approached the stage action, dancing in his underwear and singing his big number from the top of a pole, and his puppyish, amiable stage presence was a delight to see.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

As Dulcamara, Milan Siljanov brought a delightfully outsized personality to the role.  He’s an incredibly tall guy, with a voice to match, and held the stage with warm congeniality.  He savoured the text, dispatching it with wit and affection.  Andrei Zhilikhovsky is a new name to me and one I think we’ll see a lot more of.  His baritone is large and vibrant, and he dispatched Belcore’s music with just the swagger it needed.  The sound itself is incredibly healthy and he demonstrated an implicit understanding of the idiom.  Gilford tirelessly executed the stage business Bösch gave her.  Even from such a small role, one became aware of an attractive, crystalline soprano – perhaps a future Adina in the making.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Then there was Yende.  There’s something incredibly satisfying about her artistry, that sense of watching a singer developing with every performance, honing her technique as she grows as an artist.  The voice is bright and forward, ideally placed, her coloratura is impeccable, she’s the owner of a genuine trill combined with effortless acuti that shine above the texture.  What was also noticeable about Yende’s performance tonight was how she also used the text to colour the tone, using those Italian vowels to draw upon a vibrant palette of vocal colour.  As an actor, she more than held the stage with her charismatic colleagues, giving us an Adina who was sparky yet also capable of great feeling.  The Munich public rewarded her with a massive ovation.  Indeed, it was hard not to conclude that this venerable house has its new bel canto queen.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

As always, the house orchestra and chorus were on reliable form.  Being able to see the orchestra, with the new elevated pit, meant that we could see the sheer joy in the musicians’ faces as they played this score.  Francesco Angelico led a reading that was delightfully crisp in attack, but that also abounded in lyricism while lovingly phrasing those long bel canto lines in the band.  Tempi were always sensible, and never dragged, and the evening fizzled along in just the way it needed to.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

This was a delightful evening in the theatre, one greatly appreciated by the audience who made their joy clear in the closing applause.  Yes, I do have reservations about Bösch’s staging which felt unnecessarily dark initially but that, in time, reminded us that joy can be found in even the darkest of places.  If there’s a message more timely than that right now, it’s hard to think of one.  It was performed at a level worthy of this great house.  The Staatsoper deserves our gratitude for mounting this show for a reduced audience.  And, in the reaction of the crowd at the curtain calls, it was clear that this was not only appreciated but was absolutely necessary to all of us.

During this period of theatrical closures, crowdfunding support for operatraveller.com has been put on hold.  I encourage you to investigate ways of supporting your local companies and artists while houses remain closed.  Both the Patreon and PayPal for the site will resume as soon as theatres open again.

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