The opening of the Donizetti Opera Festival in Bergamo this year is an occasion for more than one celebration. The festival is back in its original venue, the beautiful Teatro Donizetti, after three years of restoration; also, it reopens after last year’s cancellation, in a city where the toll of the pandemic was the harshest in Europe. The organisation chose Donizetti’s most famous title for the opening performance, and really made a festive, grand occasion out of it. L’elisir d’amore was performed from a critical edition by Alberto Zedda, based on autographs found in Paris, without any cuts, including all the da capo’s in every duet.

The Teatro Donizetti
© Gianfranco Rota

The show began outside the theatre, with a puppet show performing the plot, and a few instrumentalists playing the music in front of the theatre, for the amusement of the passers-by. The same puppeteers enacted the Barcarola sung by Adina and Dulcamara in the second act.

At the entrance to the theatre, we were given little flags to wave, with the text of the chorus starting the second act printed on them ("Cantiamo, facciam brindisi"). A Master of Ceremonies came on stage beforehand and explained that the audience was supposed to wave their flags and sing along when the moment came. He then proceeded to teach us the tune, and we rehearsed a couple of times. We all dutifully obliged when he came back on stage at the beginning of the second act directing us, and we managed even to stay pretty much at tempo. Yours truly didn’t chicken out and performed in the correct octave for the sopranos. It was a riot.

Javier Camarena (Nemorino)
© Gianfranco Rota

Gli originali performed on original instruments (“not copies, but real original instruments,” conductor Riccardo Frizza proudly specified in the programme notes), including a magnificent Érard harp, masterfully played by Tiziana Tagliani from a stage box in “Una furtiva lagrima”. The sound of the winds was noticeably unusual; also, the tuning at around 430 gave a different feeling to the musical performance. There were some minor imperfections here and there, some difficulty in the brass, but overall Frizza gave a loving, passionate reading of this integral score, highlighting the solos interventions, and really giving us the feeling we were hearing it for the first time.

The production by Frederic Wake-Walker was traditional. The costumes (Daniela Cernigliaro) placed the action in 19th-century Bergamo, with a backdrop showing the façade of the Teatro Donizetti. The direction was kind of corny, full of exaggerated gags, especially in the character of Nemorino. This is not completely out of character for this opera, but the idea was overdone.

Caterina Sala (Adina) and Florian Sempey (Belcore)
© Gianfranco Rota

The singing cast was up to the task for such an occasion. Javier Camarena, as Nemorino, had a costume recalling Arlecchino, the character (from Bergamo) of the Commedia dell’arte, and he revelled in the funny gags, clearly having a great time playing the village fool. Vocally his interpretation was impeccable: spontaneous, emotional, but also lyrical and sentimental. He sang “Una furtiva lagrima” with a sort of amazement, of surprise, which gave an unusual feeling to the character. His strong, naturally enthusiastic tenor, capable of beautiful filati and diminuendo, conquered every heart.

Adina was Caterina Sala, a very young singer, only 22 years old, who won the audience with her strong soprano, great breath control and technique, and very easy high notes. In this performance the finale was the one Donizetti wrote for Fanny Tacchinardi in Paris: a great soprano aria, with difficult coloratura and daring high notes. Sala passed the test showing remarkable courage and preparation, rewarded with resounding acclaim. Her coloratura was spotless. Her high notes felt pushed at times and a bit piercing, although the super-high notes were round and beautiful (she hit a splendid E flat). Her performance was a successful debut, this is a singer we will want to follow in the future.

Roberto Frontali (Dulcamara)
© Gianfranco Rota

Florian Sempey sang Belcore with a pleasant baritone, his coloratura solid and based on good technique. He had also a great stage presence, perfect as the boasting military man. Roberto Frontali was a strong Dulcamara, his polished bass well projected and his acting sober. In his opening aria he had a tendency to slip the words faster than they are written, as per tradition, for a more “spoken” effect. His excellent technique came through in the duets, especially the one with Adina, where he really gave his best. The cast was completed by Anaïs Mejías as Giannetta, who imposed her presence with a well projected soprano.