Revisiting Wallberg’s Magnificent “L’Elisir”

Donizetti L'elisir D'Amore

DONIZETTI: L’Elisir d’Amore / Lucia Popp, sop (Adina); Elsie Hobarth, sop (Giannetta); Peter Dvorský, ten (Nemorino); Bernd Weikl, bar (Sgt. Belcore); Evgeny Nesterenko, bass (Dr. Dulcamara); Munich Radio Chorus & Orchestra; Heinz Wallberg, cond / BMG-RCA 74321 25280-2, also available for free streaming on YouTube

Amidst the dizzying number of operas that Gaetano Donizetti cranked out like a machine between 1819 and 1848, many of them junk and several worse than junk, the one that stands out as his masterpiece is this silly little gem, the second-most-loved Italian comic opera in the world behind Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. And unlike Il barbiere, which calls for at least three singers with the ability to sing florid runs, L’Elisir only calls for one and a half, the soprano and the tenor.

Yet there are few really funny-sounding recordings of it available. The one most people push nowadays is a DVD with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, which has about as much charm as Hillary Clinton, and the one CD version most often pushed is the Sutherland-Pavarotti recording, which just isn’t amusing. Even Pavarotti’s later studio recording with Kathleen Battle and James Levine is more sparkling, but that one suffers badly from the gray, wobbly singing of baritone Leo Nucci.

The best performance I’ve ever heard of his opera is a rarity from 1968, an in-house recording from San Francisco. The cast is Giannetta – Shigemi Matsumoto; Adina – Reri Grist; Nemorino – Luciano Pavarotti; Sgt. Belcore – Ingvar Wixell; and Dr. Dulcamara – Sesto Bruscantini, with the War Memorial Opera House Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Giuseppe Patané. You can hear this for free at the Internet Archive by clicking HERE, but the sound quality is a little rough to say the least.

However…many moons ago, when the Earth was green and I was healthy and could still walk, I bought a 3-LP set on Eurodisc with the cover reproduced above. And I was absolutely delighted by the high quality of the singing and, more importantly, by the comic involvement of all the cast members. Unfortunately, I wore out the LPs, and by then it was no longer available, so eventually I switched over to the Battle-Pavarotti recording, which after several years I decided I just couldn’t live with because Nucci sounded so awful.

Thus I was thrilled to discover that someone has uploaded the complete opera on YouTube and, in listening to it, I fell in love with it all over again. Not only does everyone in the cast sing well—even the Giannetta, which is usually a throwaway role—but everybody sounds involved, they all sing their runs and trills, and by golly, they’re having a great time doing it.

L'Elisir coverAlthough the later BMG-RCA CD reissue is also no longer available (here’s an image of the cover, drab and unwelcoming), I think you’ll be as surprised as I was as to how well this performance holds up…and the sound, thankfully, is in digital stereo. Yes, three of the ensembles, and Dulcamara’s aria “Udite, udite, o rustici,” aren’t as quicksilver as I like them, but all you have to do is download the recording and slightly speed up those sections with an audio editor by about 5% and it sounds just as sparking as the Battle-Pavarotti version, only with better singing. Poor Lucia Popp, one of my favorite light sopranos, sadly died of brain cancer at the age of 54, 11 years after this recording was made. She left a fairly sizeable legacy of recordings behind her, but few as treasurable as this one.  As for Peter Dvorský, it turns out that I wasn’t the only one who thought he was not only a terrific singer but sounded like Pavarotti: Pavarotti himself called him, in the early ‘80s, his legitimate successor. But somehow, for some reason, his career faded, possibly because he sounded too much like Pavarotti and the Italian tenor was still around for a long time.

So if you’re looking for a great digital stereo L’Elisir, look no further. This is surely the one you should go to. I think you’ll fall in love with it as I did.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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