Met stages comic opera of love as holiday fare for public TV

December 23, 1992|By Daniel Webster | Daniel Webster,Knight-Ridder News Service

Television has removed much of the risk of pleasing a Christmas audience. On tape, Mikhail Baryshnikov, forever young, dances on in "The Nutcracker." Snow falls annually on the Waltons and turkeys keep showing up at the Cratchits' house.

Into the ever-circling Christmas legends comes a comic love story as PBS broadcasts the Metropolitan Opera's performance of not "Hansel and Gretel," but Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" (tonight at 8 on Channels 22 and 67). Nothing in this opera suggests Christmas -- unless it is to reaffirm the gift of love.

The opera has the stuff of holiday fantasy, however. There is a snake-oil peddler who can be interpreted as the inadvertent magical bringer of love, an Italianate Drosselmeyer. And the main characters seem controlled by forces outside themselves. Had Donizetti needed a Christmas opera, this one could have been covered with holly in a minute.

The Met's production was premiered in 1991. Beni Montresor designed a stage that is full of whimsy and fantasy. The scenes change without interrupting the music, sometimes managed by costumed villagers tugging ropes or carrying trees. The costumes are theatrically excessive, satiric and chromatically harmonious.

Every production of this opera gives the producer the chance to create some magic in the arrival of the great quack, Dr. Dulcamara. In this work's history, he has arrived by balloon, ship, carriage and even limousines. For this entrance, producer John Copley created a domed carriage pulled by mock horses and topped by a spinning Cupid. The carriage is large enough to be a small theater with curtains that part to reveal opera's most lovable fraud.

The casting may make holiday listeners think of "Beauty and the Beast." With petite Kathleen Battle as Adina, and hulking Luciano Pavarotti as Nemorino, the opera's fundamental comedy gains an extra twist. This is Mr. Pavarotti's home turf, however, a role apt for his lyric tenor, and one which he has sung to great effect through much of his career.

This production carefully preserves the tradition of the opera. No major anachronisms intrude on this simple story of a lovesick villager in love with a wealthy landowner, Adina. Adina loves Nemorino, too, but is impatient with his simpleton ways. Inheriting his uncle's wealth and farm suddenly gives him appeal he didn't know he had -- enough to win the girl and mystify Dr. Dulcamara who thought it was his magical elixir that was responsible.

Dancers mix with the choristers to help the stage picture remain light and comic. The onstage band adds to the fun in a production that does Donizetti service.

Ms. Battle and Mr. Pavarotti are a level above baritone Juan Pons, who sings the sergeant, and bass Enzo Dara who is a light-voiced Dulcamara. Both play the roles to the hilt, but neither will be recalled as epochal singers. Together, though, they create charm, wit and fantasy. That may describe the ideal Christmas entertainment.

OPERA REVIEW

What: Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore," the Metropolitan Opera conducted by James Levine.

When: 8 tonight on PBS (Channels 22 and 67).

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