Ladies’ Night

L’Elisir d’Amore used to be considered a diva vehicle — until Caruso made it a tenor’s opera. PATRICK DILLON looks at the role of Adina in Donizetti’s comedy, which returns to the Met this month in a new production by Bartlett Sher.

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Nineteenth-century portrait of diva Maria Malibran (1808—36), who wrote her own Act II aria when she sang Adina
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Prima inter pares: the peerless Adelina Patti

Blame it on Caruso. For most of the nineteenth century, L’Elisir d’Amore belonged to the prima donna. Malibran, Patti and many others refashioned the role of Adina to showcase their skills. But that changed at a performance at La Scala in February 1901, when a young tenor sparked an encore-ravenous frenzy with his “Una furtiva lagrima.” In January 1904 he repeated the feat in his — and Elisir’s — first season at the Met, and two weeks later he headed to a studio above Carnegie Hall to record what would become a best-seller and signature piece. For the rest of Caruso’s too-short life, and well beyond it, L’Elisir d’Amore belonged to the tenor. 

But when Elisir had its premiere, at Milan’s Teatro della Canobbiana in May 1832, it was nobody’s vehicle but Donizetti’s. It featured no box-office stars; the composer had dryly reported to his father that the “tenor is passable, the donna has a pretty voice, the buffo is a bit hammy.” He mentioned none of them by name. 

Whether out of exigency or by design, Donizetti fashioned his opera as an ensemble piece. But once the creators of Adina and Nemorino (Sabine Heinefetter and Giambattista Genero) had ceded their roles to other voices in other towns, the prime donne fairly quickly pulled rank — and did so most often by means of Adina’s melting Act II solo, “Prendi, per me sei libero,” and its ensuing allegro, “Il mio rigor dimentica.” The two pieces form a perfectly wrought progression from shy sentiment to “I’ve finally admitted it!” excitement. But the scene is neither an easy sing nor a grand, look-at-me display piece; and chasing at the heels of “Una furtiva lagrima” — so simply, effortlessly eloquent — it must have struck many sopranos as a lot more work for a lot smaller a payoff. It was no surprise, then, that when the formidable Maria Malibran took on Adina at La Scala in 1835, she deemed the original aria unflattering; hence, she cleverly composed a “Prendi” of her own and added to it a breezy allegro, “Oh dolce incanto,” that sounds very little like the Donizetti of 1832. (The piece is often attributed to her husband, Charles de Bériot, but Malibran’s latter-day champion Cecilia Bartoli has claimed it definitively as the lady’s.) And Donizetti himself composed new music for two of his favorite sopranos, Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani (his first Lucia) and Eugenia Tadolini (his first Linda di Chamounix). Whether it originated in Naples in 1842 or Vienna in 1835 — there’s been some dispute — the Tadolini cabaletta wound up in Don Pasquale as part of the Norina–Pasquale duet. 

For most of the second half of the century, Adelina Patti ruled the bel canto roost even more definitively than Malibran had done. Patti sang her first Adina in 1863, when she was just twenty, and her last in 1874. Though her colleagues were often stellar, it was never in doubt just who was prima inter pares. Reviewing a London performance of 1866, the critic of the Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art praised her “delightful embodiment of Adina ... as beautiful as it is natural…. [Her] coquetry is peerless, and yet by the management of her eyes alone ... the audience is admitted into her confidence, and can [see] without difficulty that when tormenting Nemorino most pitilessly, Adina most thoroughly loves him.” All the same, he advised her to “discard the cabaletta (‘Ah, non posso esprimere’)” — presumably, the finale of Donizetti’s 1836 Betly — “which she has been used to affix to ‘Prendi, per me,’ though it is altogether ineffective, out of colour with what precedes it.” What might he have made of Malibran’s concoction?

Or of Etelka Gerster’s various “solutions” to the “Prendi” problem, two decades later in New York? Patti was the reigning star of Colonel Mapleson’s seasons at the Academy of Music, but in 1883–84 he showcased the younger Slovak soprano as well, and a press-delighting rivalry quickly ensued. It was for Gerster that he revived Elisir in December, prompting the Times critic to note, “This light but well-constructed work has been neglected of late years, certainly not because it lacks melody ... but because no distinguished soprano who has sung here ... has cared to add the character of Adina to her repertory.” He commended Gerster’s virtuosity in the aria “A tanta gioia,” in which “her trills and staccato notes were so lavishly displayed.” Whatever that piece may have been, a month later she encored “her final solo” and then “introduced a waltz song by Signor Arditi”; on still another occasion she sang the “de Bériot rondo.” “So long as Mme. Gerster chooses to sing Adina,” the Times assessed, “the opera is not likely to be soon relegated to ... obscurity.” 

But Gerster left New York, and two more decades passed before Elisir’s next major revival. This was at the Met — its premiere there — and starred the soprano who had been the house’s answer to Mapleson’s dueling divas that season of 1883–84: Marcella Sembrich, still going strong. Sembrich had already introduced La Fille du Régiment and Don Pasquale to the Met, and the Times critic deemed her “doubtless the chief incitement” to the resurrection of “this almost forgotten little work.” She “treat[ed] the music very freely ... scattering runs and cadenzas through it prodigally,” and it was duly noted that she replaced her aria’s allegro with “the air from Lucrezia Borgia,‘Il mio riguardo’ ... a more tuneful and effective piece than the almost unsingable music that Donizetti has written there.” “Almost forgotten” indeed, since the “replacement” was almost surely Donizetti’s original “Il mio rigor dimentica,” its words misheard, its provenance amusingly assigned to the incongruous Borgia. 

But Sembrich’s Nemorino was Caruso, and Elisir would never be the same. When she sang the last of her twelve Met Adinas, in 1909 (opposite Alessandro Bonci), an era was passing; and with Toscanini and Mahler exerting their strong wills at the house, prima-donna whims were less and less likely to hold sway. So were tenor encores: when Caruso, after an eleven-year hiatus, sang the role at the Met in 1916, he refused to oblige the audience’s clamor for one, offering them instead, according to the Sun’s W. J. Henderson, a short sung interjection of “To repeat is not allowable.” Frieda Hempel, his Adina, won praise for her charm, her “florid facility,” “sparkle and grace of style,” and no mention was made of any tampering with Donizetti’s score. Caruso’s final Adinas, in 1920, were Mabel Garrison and Evelyn Scotney; when the opera reappeared a decade later, with Beniamino Gigli, Nina Morgana and Editha Fleischer played the role — four worthy sopranos, but hardly of Patti/Sembrich stature. Nor, for all her delectable charms, was Bidú Sayão, who owned the role at the Met in the 1940s in a series of lively, still-entertaining ensemble performances.

As old-style prima donnas ceded Adina to team players, “Il mio rigor dimentica” was habitually cut in half or shorn altogether, with nothing put in its place. Even “Prendi” failed to claim its due, and the aria was still a recital rarity in 1964, when Maria Callas delivered her own, surprising “Prendi” for EMI. The bel canto revival was moving apace, but its prime donne were mostly leaving Adina alone. Callas, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé never sang the role onstage, though Caballé recorded a gorgeous “Chiedi all’aura” (opposite a grating, late-career Giuseppe di Stefano), and Sutherland delivered Adina whole for Decca, with two verses of Malibran’s allegro proving — for all the soprano’s amazing virtuosity — that Donizetti knew best. Beverly Sills sang Adina only once, in 1964, partly on a bet that she could turn this “tenor’s opera” into the soprano’s. “I won,” she wrote with no false modesty.

My own first Adina was Renata Scotto, in 1972, near the end of her happy Adina days; she soon moved on to grander fare. So, more gradually, did the equally winning Mirella Freni. Then came the era of Pavarotti, who for a quarter-century dominated this opera at the Met as no singer had since Caruso. From his first Adina, Roberta Peters, to his lovely last, Ruth Ann Swenson, no soprano had the chance to wrest Elisir from his sturdy grasp. Still, I have happy memories of his two most frequent partners, Judith Blegen — in their early performances, when he wasn’t yet the superstar, more the collegial peer — and Kathleen Battle, in a magical Central Park performance when her voice was at its most moon-silvery and her charm wasn’t yet as cannily calculated as it became. 

Battle was the Adina of choice until the end of her abruptly truncated Met career; and Elisir was the last thing she sang with the company, on tour in Tokyo in 1993. Regardless of her Nemorino, she easily held her own. She and Swenson launched a trend of star sopranos taking serious looks at Adina. Angela Gheorghiu sang the role at the Met in 1999, sharing the limelight with Roberto Alagna; when she reprised it ten years later, opposite three different tenors, she was the undisputed star. And now comes opera’s biggest box-office draw. Will Anna Netrebko walk off with the show? Will she sing what likely would be the Met’s first note-complete Adina, with a two-verse allegro? I’m hoping for a yes to the second question, a no to the first. The best Elisirs imbibe the potion of perfect equilibrium and belong to us all. spacer

PATRICK DILLON, a longtime New Yorker, is a regular correspondent for Opera Canada and Scherzo (Madrid).

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