The Perils of Trying to Please

The Perils of Trying to Please

A new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera “L’Elisir d’Amore” tries a little too hard to impress and falls flat. Director Alexander Petrov’s take on Donizetti’s most famous opera was well received by audiences.

Published: April 10, 2013 (Issue # 1754)

Natasha Rezina

Despite coming off as a bit naive in its staging, the opera’s vocal performances were as outstanding as ever.

With the official opening of the Mariinsky Theater’s stage due to take place in a few weeks’ time, the theater’s artistic director, Valery Gergiev, has been determined to create easily-digestible, lively productions for the company that are free of ponderous contemporary allusions, and are as easily appreciated by children as by their parents.

It was with this task in mind that the artistic duo of director Alexander Petrov and conductor Pavel Bubelnikov conceived the theater’s new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s ever-popular opera “L’Elisir d’Amore,” which was unveiled at the Mariinsky Concert Hall on March 28.

Trying to find a balance between the accessible and the rigorous in the hope of pleasing opera mavens and casual spectators alike is no easy feat.

It is difficult enough to simply create an operatic production that offers food for thought for connoisseurs, but the added burden of trying to make it accessible as well has seen the company struggling with the consequences of its artistic experiments, which regularly divide opinion.

While some spectators have enjoyed considering new conceptual conceits, the pointed social critique or the unorthodox treatment of a classical work, others have complained about what they see as the unnecessary gilding of the lily. Conversely, when the crowds have given new productions a rousing reception for “truly following the composer’s intentions,” the performers have been greeted with acerbic reviews that accuse the directors of being lazy and boring.

Alexander Petrov’s take on Donizetti looks set to continue the trend. His production, which was relatively warmly received by the audience, failed to break any new ground. As a result, it will likely see the more discerning audiences pass it over for more challenging fare.

The opera, which is set in a Tuscan village, revolves around a love triangle between the sheepish peasant Nemorino, the flirtatious beauty Adina and the self-satisfied Sergeant Belcore.

At the start of the opera, the animated, light-hearted heroine appears to have chosen Belcore, which prompts Nemorino to seek out the services of Dulcamara, a charlatan who concocts a love potion for the forlorn suitor.

In the end, however, it is money — in the shape of a large inheritance from his uncle — that wins Nemorino popularity with the village girls, while his decision to join the army appeals to Adina. But despite the facts, everyone, Nemorino included, prefers to believe in the magical properties of Dulcamara’s dubious concoction.

On opening night the company gave the impression that they were still coming to grips with the staging, and it was clear that the hiccups all had to do with the dramatic and visual elements of the production.

While it boasts undeniably marvelous acoustics, the Mariinsky Concert Hall is not an easy place to stage an opera production; its arena-like arrangement places significant limitations on the director. To make matters worse, the orchestra is set below ground level for the performances of “L’Elisir d’Amore,” which adversely affects the acoustics.

Production designer Vladimir Firer, a long-time artistic ally of both Petrov and Bubelnikov, placed a circular bar, complete with bottles of alcohol, at the center of the stage — and also at the heart of the village. While this is an amusing allusion to the love potion, which is actually nothing more than wine, the bar sits barely used throughout the production. And while the opera’s villagers occasionally include it in dance numbers, the director proves incapable of making any meaningful use of his main set piece. Dulcamara sells his potion from his own cart, without ever touching the bar.

One of Petrov’s least successful solutions was to make the chorus dance along to the music throughout the entire show. Not only did the movement have little to do with the plot, but the dancers were often unable to get the simple choreography right or to synchronize their movements. It made one wonder if the frequent stumbling was meant to illustrate one of the side effects of the much-touted love potion.

Vocally, the performances were much more persuasive. The Mariinsky singers are all very comfortable with the Bel Canto repertoire, and particularly well-rehearsed in this particular Donizetti opera, which is now in its fifth incarnation at the theater.

In the new production, soprano Oksana Shilova thrives in the role of the flirtatious village girl Adina, who so obviously delights in teasing her two admirers — the clumsy peasant Nemorino (Daniil Shtoda) and the intrepid Sergeant Belcore, who is portrayed by Roman Burdenko with a fitting dose of irony. Burdenko, who is a soloist with the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater, was convincing both dramatically and vocally, demonstrating impressive technique and a smooth, round tone.

Shtoda, who offered a straightforward take on Nemorino, was constantly on the verge of overplaying his naïve and passionate character, especially in the scenes showing the effects of the potion.

In general, the premiere left the distinct impression of being a production by the Zazerkalye Theater that had been transferred to the Mariinsky stage. Zazerkalye, for those unfamiliar with the theater on Ulitsa Rubinsteina, is a children’s theater that has a long history of association with the Mariinsky — the two theaters often share soloists, directors and conductors.

“L’Elisir d’Amore” received its most recent airing at the Mariinsky in January 2011, when the French director Laurent Pelly brought his staging to the Mariinsky following earlier performances at Milan’s La Scala and London’s Covent Garden. Pelly’s production was brought to the city at the request of renowned soprano Anna Netrebko, who sang the lead role. Sadly, this new production lacks any such storied provenance, and it shows.

‘L’Elisir d’Amore”will be performed at the Mariinsky Concert Hall tonight at 7 p.m. and again on April 28, when Vladimir Moroz will sing the role of Sergeant Belcore.

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