Chen Reiss © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Chen Reiss
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
L’elisir d’amore is a simple story about simple people from times when illiteracy was still common and children weren’t sent to private tutors or learning therapists. Peasants led preindustrial lives and the rich weren’t celebrities, but most villages had an “it girl” and a handsome yokel or two knocking about. And just as popular girls and nice-looking simpletons have attracted their own modern stereotypes, Dulcamara’s philtre remains readily familiar nowadays in the guise of the anti-wrinkle creams and diet pills which cram the pages of glossy magazines.

In short, our interest in gossip, comedy, unlikely couples and quick fixes for complex matters hasn’t changed much since the early 19th century. The memorable tunes aside, this is one of the many good reasons why L’elisir d’amore is a cornerstone of the bel canto repertory. Another is that most of us like fairy tales, as highly improbable as their endings may be – or at least this is an assumption doubled down on in Otto Schenk’s tirelessly bucolic production. The set adheres to a collection of fixed scenic elements: a quaint village square dating from Schenk’s ochre phase, a decorative pine tree at the back, and a gallows noose dangled above tables and stools for no obvious reason. Completing the production design is a sunset projected onto a buckled white curtain now somewhat pitiably in need of its own anti-wrinkle quick fix. The peasants wear matching light beige and grey clothes with some orange touches to go with the sunset; the soldiers’ jackets are bottle-green. Fresh-looking it is not, and indeed this production has been in service since 1980 and now gets marketed as “legendary”, having seen more Nemorinos than the United States has had presidents. Too worn-out and listless to register as comic theater anymore, it’s really only worth seeing when the casting promises to pep things up a bit.

Lawrence Brownlee © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Lawrence Brownlee
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
In fact my two main reasons to see another performance were Lawrence Brownlee and Mario Cassi, the Staatsoper’s newest Nemorino and Belcore, seen here in the second performance following their Viennese role debuts on 10 January (for Cassi it was also his house debut). Brownlee showed a lot of lively comedic talent, which perhaps spurred his partners on stage to stronger acting performances – I’ve rarely seen a repertory night where interaction between the principals seemed as effortless and natural as in this performance. Vocally, however, Brownlee needed some time to fully warm up, somewhat amusingly until he drank Dulcamara’s elixir, but from then on things went very well, the highpoint being an ornamented “Una furtiva lagrima”. That said, the tessitura of Nemorino seems a bit low for him and he sounds more comfortable in higher parts like the title role in Le comte Ory, where, Juan Diego Flórez aside, he has hardly any rival. Mario Cassi was a good if not very notable Belcore; the next time I would like to hear the robust tone of his recitatives and appealing legato in the fioritura as well.

The male trio was rounded off by Alfred Šramek’s grumpy Dulcamara, to whom the ongoings in this production seem business as usual, though this is more entertaining than a Dulcamara who tries too hard to be funny. Šramek is the Staatsoper’s factotum for anything that goes by “mature” and/ or “buffo”, and while he is past his vocal prime, his stage presence and fluent Italian are always enjoyable. Chen Reiss as the rich landowner Adina wears the same nondescript attire as the peasant women, but stands out from the crowd because she is every inch a lady. I’ve never caught her on great form, but this night her flexible and clear voice impressed me.

Mario Cassi © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Mario Cassi
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Guillermo García Calvo in the pit elicited convincingly Italian-sounding playing, even if that meant that things weren’t always executed with the proverbial Prussian accuracy – singers and orchestra drifted apart twice and the contrabasses sometimes sounded more rustic than an opera in a rural setting calls for. This, however, was counterbalanced by excellent flutes and fine brass performances.

All in all, this L’elisir d’amore saw a successful two-performance test-run before its return in March, again under the baton of Calvo, but with Nino Machaidze as Adina, Charles Castronovo as Nemorino, Alessio Arduini as Belcore and Erwin Schrott as Dulcamara.