Days of Pleasure: L’elisir d’amore at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos

Donizetti – L’elisir d’amore

Adina – Rita Marques
Nemorino – Antonio Garés
Belcore – Ricardo Panela
Dulcamara – Ricardo Seguel
Giannetta – Joana Seara

Coro do Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa / Antonio Pirolli.
Stage director
Mário João Alves.

Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon, Portugal.  Monday, October 3rd, 2022.

This new staging of L’elisir d’amore by noted tenor, Mário João Alves, marks the opening of the 2022 – 23 season at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos.  I caught the second performance of the run, following Saturday’s opening night.  The remainder of the season includes some interesting highlights, not least a new production of Azio Corghi’s Blimunda, to mark the centennial of José Saramago, as well as productions of Lucia, Holländer, Trovatore, and a concert of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

Photo: © António Pedro Ferreira / TNSC 2022

In his staging, Alves does so much with little.  Props are extremely simple, a couple of ladders leading up to the flies suggest that we are watching events take place on an orange farm – an impression heightened by the fact that oranges are all around the stage, whether used as props for characters to throw around or indeed to juggle with, not to mention a big surprise at the end.  Dulcamara arrives on stage having seemingly parachuted in, preceded with flyers advertising his services, dropping from the ceiling of the auditorium.  The costumes (Sandra Catarino) suggest that the action is taking place in the 1950s, bright and colourful, they match the sunniness of the music. 

Photo: © António Pedro Ferreira / TNSC 2022

Working with so little in terms of props means that Alves focuses his staging on intricate personenregie that creates real, flesh and blood characters who genuinely engage with each other.  He has elicited from his cast performances of the utmost conviction.  Furthermore, he also uses the chorus, so important in this work, to populate the stage with a vibrant sense of village life.  They, and indeed all the principals, looked like they were having the time of their lives – dancing, flirting with the drunk Nemorino, or teasing him.  The staging had clearly been fluently rehearsed and worked effectively in creating a sense of physical comedy that lived alongside the music.  This never felt contrived, or over the top, instead it felt organic and linked to creating, real, believable characters.

Photo: © António Pedro Ferreira / TNSC 2022

This is music that makes the world feel like a much better place, at least for a while, music filled with Italian sunshine.  Stepping into the shoes of a previous Nemorino on this stage, Alfredo Kraus, was Cordobés tenor Antonio Garés.  He lives in Italy and Garés used the warmth of those Italian vowels to really colour the tone and bring his character to life.  His tenor is bright and focused in tone, with an appropriately youthful sound that captured the innocence of his character.  Garés also has some impressive breath control, able to sustain those long phrases of ‘una furtiva lagrima’ in one, where so many before him have had to chop them up.  He’s also a game stage presence, walking around the stage in nothing more than a giant lampshade at one point, while vividly presenting Nemorino’s intoxication from the elixir.  There was a sunniness to Garés’ vocalism, his use of text, not to mention that kind of implicit musicality that cannot be taught, that I found absolutely winning.  Without doubt a name to watch.

Photo: © António Pedro Ferreira / TNSC 2022

His Adina was Rita Marques.  I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Marques sing supporting roles on this stage, but this was my first time hearing her as a lead.  Her soprano is feather-light, with a delightful smile in the tone, combined with an agreeable fizz of vibrato that recalls a fine vinho verde.  She’s capable of floating some ravishing pianissimi high up in the voice, combined with an agreeably milky-smooth legato.  Marques is also a highly engaging stage presence.  There was a joyfulness to her Adina that I found so wonderful to watch.  Her energy lit up the stage, and she busted some impressive moves dancing with obvious glee.  Marques is also an extremely fine musician – her closing number saw her give us some stratospheric embellishments to the line, electrifying the audience who awarded her with a roar of approval, yet everything she did was utterly musical and never gratuitous.

Photo: © António Pedro Ferreira / TNSC 2022

A new name to me was Ricardo Seguel as Dulcamara.  The Chilean bass-baritone is the owner of a warm, rounded and resonant instrument.  He also made so much of the text, dispatching it with wit and generosity, colouring the lines with relish and using it to create a believable, yet wily character.  There was so much personality to his incarnation of the role, combined with the healthiness of his instrument that meant his assumption gave so much pleasure.  As Belcore, Ricardo Panela was certainly a swaggering stage presence.  The voice, however, is somewhat unfocused in tone, the top disconnected and lacking in quality, while the legato was aspirated.  Joana Seara was an agreeable Giannetta, making a positive contribution to the ensembles. 

Photo: © António Pedro Ferreira / TNSC 2022

Antonio Pirolli led the house forces in a relaxed and congenial account of the score.  His tempi were sensible, never too slow, although it felt that the Act 1 finale could perhaps have had a bit more swing.  Attack was somewhat soft-grained, with strings playing with full-cream vibrato.  That said, another than a few patches of sour intonation, the strings acquitted themselves well.  The solo bassoon played with haunting pathos in ‘una furtiva lagrima’.  The orchestra was undoubtedly at one with Pirolli’s vision of the score.  The house chorus, prepared by Giampaolo Vessella, sang with contagious enthusiasm, with some notably piquant mezzos. 

Photo: © António Pedro Ferreira / TNSC 2022

This was an absolutely terrific evening in the theatre, one that for two and a half hours made the world a much better place.  Indeed, it was one of those uplifting evenings that one just didn’t want to end.  The sheer enthusiasm of the youthful cast, Pirolli’s congenial conducting, and Alves’ character-led staging, all combined to give us an evening that sent the audience home with a big smile on their faces.  In Garés, Marques and Seguel, we also had three principals who would be at home on any stage in the world.  Naturally, the close of the evening was met with a huge burst of applause from the São Carlos audience. 

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