The Zurich opera’s decision to revive Gaetano Donizetti’s two-act opera buffa L'elisir d'amore this season was well taken, for Grischa Aragaroff’s production is a delight for eyes and ears. What’s more, the great eminence of the Italian repertoire, Nello Santi, returns to the podium for this run, marking close to six decades of his conducting in the Zurich house.

L’elixir was terrifically popular in Donizetti’s lifetime, largely because its easy tunes, straightforward plots, and rather two-dimensional characters were the favourite of the mid-19th century audience. Securing his venerable place in the genre, Donizetti wrote no fewer than 72 operas, yet they represented only a fraction of his prolific musical output. Hearing that Rossini had composed The Barber of Seville in just two weeks, he is said to have quipped: “That doesn’t surprise me; he has always been lazy.”

In the first performance of the L’elisir revival here in Zurich, the Argentine tenor Juan Francisco Gatell sang the lead, Nemorino, replacing the scheduled Pavol Breslik, who was ill. In Act 1, suffering unrequited love, he sings of wanting nothing more than to be irresistible to his beloved Adina. Gatell showed a good command of Donizetti’s “vocal exhibitionism”, sometimes making up in volume, however, what I’d have liked in variation. His stage presence, too, was somewhat compromised by a peculiar habit: flat-backed and pigeon-toed, he often bent forward from the waist in a stance more like that of an old man than of an ardent lover.

At the beginning of Act 2, though, Nemorino sings the legendary cantilena, “Una furtiva lagrima” that marks the turning point of the opera. What starts as a soft declaration of woefulness develops into a powerful release of emotions as he slowly realizes that Adina does, indeed, care for him. “Just for an instant,” he sings, “I could feel the beating of her beautiful heart”! There is little in the operatic repertoire that matches that for yanking at the heartstrings, and seated alone on a faded overseas trunk, Gatell nailed it. Bassoonist Urs Dengler’s solo accompaniment was no less compelling, nor illustrative of the land of lovers. 

The Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska sang her debut as Adina. She took accolades for her Giulietta in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi here last year, but tackled the fiery Donizetti with remarkable ease, too, tossing out even more demanding passages with natural flair and tremendous personality. Having confessed to the fawning Nemorino to being capricious, she tortures him in Act 1 by telling of her amusements with “a new lover every day”. She also tries to abate the attentions of the hilariously self-assured Belcore, whom she accuses − at least with women − of “shouting ‘Victory’ even before the battle is won”. At about the same time, Nemorino downs the love potion that travelling “doctor” Dulcamara assures him will attract his Adina, the love-sick fellow unaware that it’s simply red wine. As opera would have it, the wine makes him gregarious, fun-loving, and much more attractive.

With its love potion, scintillating music, and budding romance, this opera has been labelled a "confection", and Tullio Pericoli’s beautiful stage decoration did that image justice. The designer’s sketch-like, singular vignettes of luscious fruits and desserts, simple neo-classical hilltop architecture and bucolic landscapes made a distinctive signature, bringing poetry, lightness of being and good humour all at once to the stage. In a frame of shady trees like those that grace the entrances to great houses, Pericoli’s forest even included a (mock) wild boar that twice scampered across the stage.

Levente Molnár sang the self-delusional Belcore, who − bolstered by his rank and uniform − saw himself the apple of every women’s eye. Hamida Kristoffersen was Giannetta, a role that nicely bolstered the vocal ranks of the fine house choir under Jürg Hämmerli’s direction. Renato Girolami was brilliant as Dulcamara, the deliciously devious charlatan whose absurd and tightly-rolled wig was a belly laugh in itself. Finally, the wonderfully gifted mime Jan Pezzali, as the doctor’s compliant assistant − but in pink and orange polka-dots − was another highlight. He didn't miss a trick, and his quick gestures often mirrored the mishaps the principles had to suffer.

In short, this performance was great fun. Nello Santi, 85, came onto the stage and was visibly moved by the thunderous and much-deserved applause. For while his association here has spanned almost sixty years, the Philharmonia Zurich under his baton made music that was as lively, fresh and infectious as to be called downright boyish. Just so, it was a sweet surprise when – at the very last − Maestro Santi peeked out from a narrow crack in the red velvet curtain like a curious 5-year old.