Uplifting Engagement: L’elisir d’amore at the Festival Donizetti Opera

Donizetti – L’elisir d’amore

Adina – Caterina Sala
Nemorino – Javier Camarena
Belcore – Florian Sempey
Dulcamara – Roberto Frontali
Giannetta – Ana
ïs Mejias

Coro Donizetti Opera, Orchestra Gli Originali / Riccardo Frizza.
Stage director – Frederic Wake-Walker

Festival Donizetti Opera, Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, Italy.  Sunday, November 28th, 2021.

At the start of this afternoon’s Elisir d’amore, actor Manuel Ferreira appeared to give a brief speech.  He welcomed the audience to the theatre, congratulated us on our courage in attending the show, and reminded us that the pandemic hit the city of Bergamo extremely hard, back in those dreadful months last year.  As a result, he wished us an Elisir for the soul, an evening to remind us of the power of music to uplift and transport us.  As part of his act, he also taught the audience the melody and words of the Act 2 wedding chorus and encouraged us to participate when the moment came.  To assist, we were given flags with the words on them in case these were forgotten.  As that opening chorus began, the effect was incredibly moving – in part, because of a feeling of art being reborn in this beautiful theatre after being closed for renovation, as well as in society in general; in another, because this is a city that has suffered and mourned so much and yet its spirit is irrepressible. 

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

Much like the music of its most famous son, this afternoon staged by Frederic Wake-Walker.  Wake-Walker has given us an inoffensive production that looks good.  Direction of the singers consisted of a lot of emoting to the front, with characters often barely looking at those they were engaging with.  The chorus, masked due to the sanitary protections in place, was used fluently – the way that they crowded around Nemorino in the opening scene, reminding him of his status as a figure of ridicule was telling.  Similarly, the way that the ladies crowded around him when they realized he had come into money, indulging in some business with clear balloons, made for an interesting tableau.  The presence of some child extras, costumed like and presumably representing Adina and Nemorino in their younger days, seemed something of an afterthought.  Nevertheless, Wake-Walker has given us an uplifting evening, simply by giving the narrative space to let its magic unfold.  Additionally, by setting the action in front of an image of the Teatro Donizetti, he reminded us of the great man’s legacy to his hometown. 

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

The magic was also sustained thanks to Riccardo Frizza’s conducting.  This Elisir is the best thing I have heard from him yet.  Tempi were nicely swift and springy, and there was an irrepressible rhythmic momentum that was undeniable.  Yet, his reading never felt four-square and rigid.  Instead, he injected the music with a natural sense of phrasing, that inimitable Donizettian framework of long lines superimposed on a constantly pulsating rhythmic underlay swept us along.  There was something really special seeing the people around me reacting to and swaying to the music.  It felt that it was flowing through them just in the way that it should.  The orchestra was on excellent form for him.  Attack was sharp and unanimous, and the winds in particular, provided some deliciously characterful playing.  The chorus was nicely enthusiastic and stage-pit coordination was spot on throughout the entire evening.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

Caterina Sala.  Make a note of this name.  The Como-born soprano is destined for an extremely bright future in this and other repertoires.  The voice has an irresistible smile to the tone, bright and with a fizzy vibrato redolent of a crisp prosecco.  Her coloratura is immaculate, and she indulged us in some extremely daring embellishments to the line in her big closing number, capped with some electric acuti that quite literally stopped the show.  Sala’s singing also has the kind of implicit musicality that cannot be taught, she understands this music and phrased it lovingly and with imagination.  A major talent.  I must admit that I would very much like to hear her in Lucia but also as Susanna, I imagine both roles would suit her very well. 

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

Javier Camarena gave us a wonderfully detailed Nemorino.  His bright, well-placed tenor with easy reach is ideal for the demands of the role.  He was also an engagingly awkward stage presence, incarnating the slightly gauche lovesick country resident with comic effect.  Camarena gave us a nicely poised ‘una furtiva lagrima’, sung with seemingly endless phrases and genuinely sensitive use of dynamics.  There’s a renewed warmth to Camarena’s middle register that I hadn’t noticed before, while the top continues to ring out with ease.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

As Belcore, Florian Sempey sang his music with a big, beefy baritone.  It sounded to my ears that it took him a little while to warm up, his ‘come Paride vezzoso’ dispatched with his customary elegance of line, but with the tone not yet in focus.  He warmed up nicely though, and sang his duet with Nemorino in Act 2 with terrific swagger and bravura dispatch of the rapid-fire patter – the voice full and warm.  Roberto Frontali was a deliciously uninhibited Dulcamara, truly singing the role off the text.  His baritone perhaps lacks the ideal depth of tone at the bottom, but Frontali more than made up for this with the sheer wit that he found in the role, and with his generous and congenial stage presence.  Anaïs Mejias was a positive presence in the ensembles, her fruity soprano even throughout the range.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

This was an utterly uplifting afternoon in the theatre.  A reminder of the power of art to make the world a much better place.  While the staging was unobtrusive, it did allow and give space for the cast to work its magic – and the musical rewards were plentiful.  Superbly conducted, terrifically sung, and revealing a major new soprano talent, this was a show that did Bergamo’s favourite son justice.  Naturally, it was rewarded with a massive ovation from the Bergamasco public, clearly delighted to be back in this jewel of a theatre.

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