L’Elisir d’Amore

The Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, March 24.

L’Elisir d’Amore is exactly the sort of silly fluff that makes opera’s roots as mass entertainment abundantly clear: if there were ever an opera that resembled some dumb contemporary rom com, this is it. The whole story turns on the staggering stupidity and naïveté of the main characters, whose repeated attempts to inspire love by feigning indifference are so over-the-top and petty that middle schoolers would find them childish.

And yet Donizetti’s music is so beautiful and charming—and sung here with such joy and vivacity—that I could never be so dismissive when I’m actually experiencing it. If L’Elisir is a dumb rom com, it’s the dumb rom com that I actually kind of love in spite of myself. Greater than the sum of its parts, L’Elisir is a work of alchemy.

Saturday night was one of the last performances of this particular production, a defiantly old-fashioned, candy-colored trifle due to be replaced next season. Judging by the promotional photos of Anna Netrebko channeling her inner Marlene Dietrich, director Bartlett Sher’s L’Elisir will be reaching for a more sensuous take on the Donizetti standard, which is certainly valid, but honestly, I can’t regret seeing this blithe, almost tongue-in-cheek version by John Copley.

It helps that the cast is ridiculously appealing. Diana Damrau’s natural sweetness tempers Adina’s bitchy streak, and Juan Diego Flórez cheerfully mugs through much of the goofy proceedings, happy to win laughs with anachronistic dance steps during Nemorino’s love-potion-addled/drunken jubilation. More important, both singers excel at making Donizetti’s virtuosic runs and leaps sound effortless. Even the showiest bel canto passages sound as warm and gently lyrical as a beginner-level Italian aria.

And to be fair, the most famous, beloved aria from L’Elisir, Nemorino’s quietly impassioned “Una furtiva lagrima,” is also one of the simplest, relying on tenderness rather than showy pyrotechnics to win its ovations. Flórez performs the number with heart-stopping expressivity, and the production hushes itself as he sings, toning down the garish sets in favor of a cool blue twilight. It’s a gorgeous scene—in large part because for one perfect moment, the opera transcends its silly story and sillier characters. “Lagrima” is the one moment that feels like it could be about Love, without games, without eye rolls, without air quotes. It’s a welcome reminder to snooty snobs like me that even the stupidest romantic comedies often have a beating heart at their core.

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