Teatro alla Scala at Malpensa Airport, Milan - 2015
Fabio Luisi, Grischa Asagaroff, Bianca Tognocchi, Vittorio Grigolo, Mattia Olivieri, Michele Pertusi, Eleonora Buratto, Jan Pezzali, Mauro Edantippe
ARTE Concert - 17 September 2015
Although I've come to appreciate and admire some of Donizetti's lesser known works, I've never been a great fan of what is probably his most popular work, L'Elisir d'Amore. I have to admit though that its popularity does at least lead to some inventive settings and reinterpretations, even if the humour and characterisation that can be derived from its situations have always seemed rather limited. It's a work however that merits attention particularly when it's performed by an Italian company and you would expect La Scala in Milan to bring out the full value of the work. The essential Italian quality of the work is supported here by an unusual setting that if it's not the most inventive is at least challenging.
Anyone who believes that opera is still a vital art form where even Donizetti still has a place and has something to communicate to the world today, has to admire any attempt to get opera out of the theatre and away from theatricality, and attempt to reach a new audience. Cinema showings and internet streaming are one way, as is the use of directing talent from the theatre and cinema, as well as the employment of directors with distinctive visions and a determination to apply it to classic works. Physically taking the stagingess out of the opera house is also an admirable endeavour, and surprisingly, one that often works remarkably well. La Scala's attempt to stage L'Elisir d'Amore at Malpensa airport in Milan starts out like a good idea then, but it doesn't successfully follow through on its ambitions.
The airport is a surprisingly versatile place for an opera, and it's not the first time a live TV broadcast of an opera has been made from one. A few years ago there was an impressive and spectacular production of Mozart's Die Entführung dem Serail broadcast live from the airport at Salzburg. Adapting the public spaces and even the runway to the needs of the libretto, it even succeeded in putting a relevant modern spin on the intent of the work. Die Entführung isn't a particularly deep work by any means, but it does have rather more to it than L'Elisir d'Amore, you would think. So how does flashmobbing Donizetti at Milan-Malpensa fit in with the 'themes' or even just the comic situations of Donizetti's sparkling melodramma giocoso?
Well, it's a bright, lively opera and one that suits an open public performance. This Elisir opens in an airport cafe where Nemorino is a waiter and Adina the oblivious, indifferent owner sitting reading her book while Nemorino pines over her failure to respond to his admiration. Belcore is, of course, a handsome pilot in smart uniform, flanked by glamorous air hostesses as he parades through the concourse to the departure gates. Dulcamara is an amateur pilot in leather jacket and goggles who is flown is a small private plane with a portable drinks cabinet that he sets up on a prepared stage. Belcore of course recruits Nemorino not into the army here, but as a member of his cabin crew. It's not a perfect match for the opera and the locations are not used as inventively as Salzburg. Instead of a stage in the opera house, all they manage to do is set one up in an airport with airport travellers seated around it.
Having made some effort at least in the first Act to have it semi-credibly located in an airport, the airport workers inexplicably abandon their modern-day dress and behaviour momentarily in Act II for clownish pantomime costumes, marching onto the stage built in the check-in area to celebrate the coming wedding of Adina and Belcore. I don't know why this occurs, but it looks ridiculous. Further defeating the point, much of the remainder of the work subsequently takes place in this main location, on a stage, singing out to travellers who obviously have a long time to wait for their flights. 'Una furtiva lagrima' at least is well staged as the new cabin crew member Nemorino takes his bags through security. Unfortunately, the artificiality of most of the production is compounded by the inclusion of a French and an Italian host who step in now and again to explain to the TV audience what is going on, interviewing members of the audience, and they even discuss aspects of the work with the singers, partly in character, partly stepping out if it.
It's not entirely satisfactory, but some respond better to the setting than others and you can get away with pretty much anything in L'Elisir d'Amore if you enter into it with the spirited indulgence of the commedia dell'arte origins of the work. With the production settling for traditional over the opportunities offered by the airport locations, all that is left is the quality of the opera performance itself, and fortunately, it's reasonably good. Vittorio Grigolo is a bright and committed Nemorino, singing well and Michele Pertusi gives us his usual entertaining Dulcamara, a familiar comic role that is comfortably within his range. Mattia Olivieri is not quite as commanding as he might be for Belcore but proves to be a suitable rival for Adina's affections. There's nothing particularly cruel or misguided about this Adina - just a woman who can't make her mind up and is ready to act spitefully on a whim. I've seen Eleonora Buratto sing this role before in Asagaroff's production at Zurich and she plays it well here again, if not having quite the full force of delivery.
I don't know if there is anything more to be gained from staging L'Elisir d'Amore in an airport than is already apparent in its simple storyline. What the La Scala production demonstrates is perhaps not so much that L'Elisir is still a relevant work with some important message for today, as much as the way that opera can be something living and vital without compromising on its essence. There aren't many other popular forms of art that are capable of being performed live in a public place with such a high level of artistic merit as this. Art installations in public places have limited appeal and no-one seems particularly interested in putting theatre on in public places, yet somehow La Scala are able to pitch up Fabio Luisi, a full orchestra and some of the finest singers in Italian opera into Milan-Malpensa airport with a custom-made production and film the whole proceedings live without there being any significant decline in artistic quality.
One might have hoped for more however, because really, this is just a perfunctory run-though of the opera, particularly from Fabio Luisi. The performances do at least have the kind of freshness that revitalises the work to some extent and the airport setting initially serves as a good showcase (or gimmick if you like) to show a wider audience how entertaining, accessible and versatile opera can be. Perhaps it's the change of environment, but even the more jaded viewer or one unconvinced by L'Elisir d'Amore can observe the artistry involved in a new light. It's live and it's an event; one that, despite the use of discreet radio microphones and headsets, doesn't compromise the essential character or nature of the art form, but rather shows how enduring and adaptable it can be.
Links: Teatro alla Scala, ARTE Concert