Met Opens Season With Gala, Russian Diva Netrebko

'L'Elisir d'Amore'
Anna Netrebko as Adina in "L'Elisir d'Amore" at the Metropolitan Opera. Donizetti's comic opera will be telecast live to movie theaters on Oct. 13, 2012. Photographer: Ken Howard/Met Opera via Bloomberg

Here’s a guaranteed money maker: Sell love potions at the door.

Sipping from small bottles might have made sitting through the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of “L’Elisir d’Amore” (The Elixir of Love) a more delightful experience.

In Donizetti’s comic opera, which opened the Met season on Monday, Dr. Dulcamara, a jovial quack apothecary, pulls into a sleepy Italian town dispensing repackaged Bordeaux for everything that could possibly ail a human being.

He’s got an eager customer in Nemorino, a weepy peasant who loves Adina, the rich and fickle landowner.

What about the rest of us?

My heart hurt, too. It sank ever lower at the sight of the homely set and those posturing choristers.

Directed by Bartlett Sher with designs by Michael Yeargan (sets) and Catherine Zuber (costumes), the production could have been new 50 years ago.

I don’t really mind a period look. This simple farce with wonderful music probably resists updating, but couldn’t the team have worked a little harder to freshen it up and improve the sight lines? The first act’s church was largely invisible from my side seat in the orchestra; balcony views were obscured by the fake proscenium.

Pretty Lighting

The show does improve in the second act with a grandly scaled hay loft very prettily lit by the legendary Jennifer Tipton. Chorus ladies flutter about holding lanterns, looking for the tipsy and newly rich Nemorino.

I suppose it will all look nice enough in close-ups when the show is telecast live to movie theaters on Oct. 13.

Sher, a Tony-award winning director of musicals and plays, once declared his ignorance of opera on a television program, and he doesn’t seem to be a quick learner. He dutifully follows the libretto without adding anything charming or memorable. Judging by his program note, he thinks there are dark undercurrents to this flat tale that we haven’t noticed before and invents a Hamlet-like dimension for Nemorino.

Fortunately, he had a lustrous cast, led by Russian diva Anna Netrebko, who brought her usual sly charm to the farmette and sang with polish while wearing a mysterious top hat. Oh wait, I think I get it. She’s a bossy pants who needs to let her hair down. And that she dutifully does toward the end, when Nemorino pulls her into some bushels of wheat.

By then Matthew Polenzani had secured the biggest ovation of the evening with his gorgeously phrased “Una furtiva lagrima” -- and done nothing to suggest the character is anything but an irritating dumb sack of potatoes.

Mariusz Kwiecen provided a lively if small-scale Belcore. Ambrogio Maestri, wonderfully vested by Zuber, had the most natural delivery as Dulcamara, singing with ease and never overdoing the comedy.

Tepid applause for the production team and Maurizio Benini, the competent if not very bouncy conductor; enthusiastic cheers for the singers ended the evening.

The opening was transmitted live to the plaza outside where the crowd had the further pleasure of watching an intermission program featuring Deborah Voigt interviewing a number of befuddled celebs and mute models, plus Placido Domingo, who portrayed Nemorino some 40 years ago. He said he would soon sing papa Germont now that he had run out of tenor roles.

Can I please have what he’s drinking?

“L’Elisir d’Amore” will be performed again on Sept. 27 and on other dates through Feb. 9, 2013 at the Metropolitan Opera, Broadway at 65th Street. Information: +1-212-362-6000; Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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