Review of the Donizetti Opera Festival 2021: L’Elisir d’Amore
The Donizetti Opera Festival opened its opera performances with a new production of “L’Elisir d’Amore” under the direction of musical director Riccardo Frizza. The production was a critical new edition which included a new aria and cabaletta for Adina in act two as well as additional music, and was performed on period instruments to reproduce the sound of Donizetti’s era. The evening also benefited from the raffle of Javier Camarena, who was making his festival debut.
It had all the makings to be the highlight of this year’s festival, but unfortunately it was a bit of a letdown.
The star of the night
Young soprano Caterina Sala sang the role of Adina in her Bergamo debut and was the star of the evening. At just 21 years old, she has a beautiful velvety tone with a balanced vibrato throughout her range. She projects wonderfully, especially as her voice rises to the top range and her top notes shine.
Like Adina, she was comical and extremely moving. She started out with a lively version of “della crudle Isotta”, very expressive and showing her stripped-down coloring technique in several roulades and scales up to such a high naturalness. Adina is a true lyrical role, her tessitura is in the middle of the voice, and although she has several ascents to high A’s and B’s, the general writing of the role is central. Sala’s voice shone and carried from the bottom up, and the lower intonation of the score didn’t seem to affect her singing. But the highlight and the big surprise of his performance was the alternative aria “Prendi: per me sei libero” from the critical edition of Alberto Zedda’s score. Although it retains a similar writing of long, sad lines with a cadence up to high C, the cabaletta is much brighter and with intervals up to high C and high B flat reminiscent of the “Quando rapito” cabaletta in stasi ”from“ Lucia di Lammermoor. This cabaletta sounds more suited to a bravery tune from a serious opera, rather than a buffa. Sala sang the difficult cabaletta effortlessly and with legato ascents to high C, a direct attack on a D flat on the first verse and crisp trills on the cadence between verses. She added subtle variations on the repetition of the cabaletta, mainly staccato jumps to high notes, and an explosive and thundering E flat to conclude the piece.
With such an incredible performance, Sala promises to have a huge career in the years to come.
Featured tenor Javier Camarena struggled as Nemorino. The score is written for the middle of the tenor’s register, while Camarena’s career has focused on writing opera in its upper parts. The use of period instruments and the orchestral tuning at 432 Hz, which is lower than the common 440 Hz chord, did little to help. Even though Camarena’s midrange has widened and her voice has gained security in the midrange, it comes from a lirico-leggero vocalitá where the scores are written permanently above the passagio area, plus l ascension towards the extreme highs, while the part of Nemorino is written mainly inside the staff and with rare climbs towards the high A. His cavatine tune “Quanto é bella” sounded muffled and weak, as the tenor tried to lighten the sound when most of the lines appeared around the low E. Even though his legato singing was haunting, the voice no longer shone like before. This problem was noticeable throughout the first act, where the tenor has virtually no dynamics and diminuendos but tried to keep the sound light and secure. His diminuendo in the line “che non sa dir, un poter” was exquisite, but in general he sang loud. He still had memorable moments, such as the lamentable “Oh Adina credimi…” sung with despair in an exquisite mezza voce.
It seems that his voice calmed down from the second act. His duet with Belcore sounded more secure, though it still sounded more like a baritone than a tenor. He sings “Una furtiva lagrima” again without his usual mezza voce and piannissimi, which shows once again that he needs to secure the sound because he is not comfortable with the range. But the end of the aria was breathtaking. The tenor kept the silences between the lines of “Si puó morir” for a long time, maintaining an atmosphere of tension and expectation which thus sounded extremely expressive. The tenor ended the opera by rising in high B flat alongside the soprano, which is not written in the score and which was decisive.
To make matters worse, the oversized clothing and sailor hat he wore, along with an over-the-top clownish rendition, caused him to grab the attention of the rest of the cast who performed with moderation and truth. His characterization was, therefore, exaggerated and exaggerated. If the audience isn’t laughing at the role of Nemorino, something is wrong, and the Bergamo audience remained silent and still throughout the performance.
Baritone Roberto Frontali’s casting as Dulcamara came as a surprise, as the role is written for a basso-buffo. As a result, Dulcamara’s low range seemed uncomfortable for Fronatli’s voice. It also felt distant and small throughout the performance. Nonetheless, the baritone’s singing was refined and lyrical. He avoided any parlato vocals typically done in this role. For example, “Udite, udite o rustici” was a bel canto lesson, as it sang with long, flowing legato lines and a wide range of dynamics.
Florian Sempey portrayed Belcore and while his timbre sounded warm and natural, the sound was throaty and lacked good projection. He has a good command of the bel canto style and his sentences are fluid and long, but like some of his colleagues, the role was found to be too low for his voice to shine properly. His acting, however, was wonderful and he created a funny and believable character.
The new production was directed by Frederic Wake-Walker, who put the opera in Bergamo itself. The action took place in front of a painted canvas of the Teatro Donizetti and some of the canvas arches that were lowered for some scenes were reminiscent of Piazza Vecchia in Bergamo. The costumes appeared to be from the 1920s but were not specific. An interesting element in the production was that the children dubbed the characters of Adina, Nemorino, Belcore and Dulcamara. The staging was just too correct, however, and didn’t add anything new to the piece itself, appearing very routine. The interpretation surrounding the performance, however, was anything but routine.
Thirty minutes before the performance began, there was theater outside the theater, introducing the characters and performing with the puppet theater that would later become relevant, during the barcarolle of the second act. Reception staff handed out small, colorful flags with a verse from the opening choir from the second act written on them to the audience as they entered the theater. A master of ceremonies taught the audience the rhythm and melody of this written verse, repeating it and making the audience sing it. This was all in the works for when the audience sang alongside the choir at the start of the second act. It was a very clever way to make opera more accessible to the public.
The musical director of the Donizetti festival presented a critical and uncut version of the score. It was probably the first time since Donizetti’s time that the opera had been performed without a bridge. The Gli Originali Orchestra performed with original period instruments, and not with reproductions of old instruments, tuned in the aforementioned 432 Hz. Riccardo Frizza tried to recreate Donizetti’s original sound as much as possible. While this choice might be welcome for a musical purist in the audience, the period instruments seemed weak and strained. We are used to clearer and purer sound from today’s instruments. At times, it sounded like a chamber orchestra was playing as opposed to a full orchestra, and the lower tuning made the music less bright and cheerful. However, there were also some brilliant moments in the music: Frizza’s nod when playing Wagner’s “Tristan chord” on the pianoforte when Isolde’s elixir of love was mentioned in the recitatives. was very smart.
It was a modest production with a stellar cast of singers dominated by young soprano Caterina Sala, in a questionable attempt to present the opera as it was performed in Donizetti’s time.