SAN FRANCISCO — Donizetti's should-be charming, must-be stylish "L'Elisir d'Amore" has returned to the War Memorial Opera House after a seven-year absence in a revival that honors a lazy, laissez-faire tradition. San Francisco has poured a flat new elixir into a shabby old bottle.
When this production was first seen, 25 years ago, it represented the first independent effort here by an extraordinarily resourceful stage director named Lotfi Mansouri. The management didn't give him much of a budget for sets and costumes, but it did give him a dream ensemble--led by Reri Grist, Alfredo Kraus, Ingvar Wixell and Sesto Bruscantini.
Mansouri moved these paragons around Robert Darling's reasonably fanciful, eminently functional turntable set with wit and fluidity. He always kept a respectful eye on the precarious lines that separate comedy from caricature, lyricism from narcissism.
Now, Mansouri is general director of the San Francisco Opera. One would have thought that any plan to bring back his ancient "Elisir" would inspire special degrees of tender, loving, sentimental care. One even would have thought that after a quarter century of use and three revivals a new production might be in order.
No such luck. Mansouri has merely taken the old decors out of the warehouse, brushed away the cobwebs, hired a relative novice to direct traffic and removed his own name from the program credits. The talented young singers seem left pretty much to their own disparate devices.
Instant opera is alive and unwell in San Francisco.
The fuzzy outlines of Mansouri's original staging scheme remain intact. But Linda Brovsky, the current director, has taken much away and added little. She reduces the opera to a clumsy exercise in bucolic cliches. The choristers mill about assuming pleasant-peasant and silly-soldier poses, often awkwardly and always self-consciously. The principals, who might have strolled in from a bus-and-truck edition of "Song of Norway," do their stereotypical things with an air of helpless desperation.
Or is it merely improvisation?
Jerry Hadley turns the would-be heroic Nemorino into a foolish bumpkin chronically prone to mugging. Ruth Ann Swenson--who had taken the nearly invisible duties of Gianetta, the \o7 second \f7 soubrette, in the 1984 revival--bathes Adina in enough winsome smiles to embarrass an army of Cheshire cats.
At the other histrionic extreme, Gino Quilico--whose father Louis had undertaken the same role here in 1956--swaggers almost timidly as Belcore, the blustery baritone. And Simone Alaimo throws away the rich buffo opportunities of the quack Dr. Dulcamara in a dubious quest for romantic bravado.
At least everyone sings nicely. Hadley may not command the most sensuous or colorful tenorino ever heard as Nemorino, but he phrases with technical poise and expressive point. Swenson encountered a few unaccustomed problems with breath and pitch control on Sunday, and it could be argued that she applied more stratospheric coloratura than the role demands. Still, her purity of tone, easy agility and grace under pressure continue to impress.
Quilico sounded as handsome as he looked in the Sergeant's uniform. Alaimo sounded and looked more handsome than necessary, or useful, as the comic charlatan; still, it was interesting, for a change, to hear his music sung rather than sputtered.
Laura Claycomb, like all Gianettas before her, chirped pertly. The chorus was ragged, and the old toy mare that draws Dulcamara's carriage ain't what she used to be.
Given the generally bedraggled circumstances, a Toscanini or Serafin might have had a hard time sustaining musical logic, much less brio, in the pit. Bruno Campanella, a maestro from Turin making his U.S. opera debut on this occasion, managed to do little more than beat time. At least he did that with quiet competence.