2 JUNE 1961, Page 18

Op er a

Welcome Intruder


CAIRNS I CAME back from Glynde- bourne last Wednesday with my belief in Signor Zeffirelli as a producer of opera as restored by what went on inside the theatre as my belief in Social- ism was strengthened by the inane parade outside it. This new production of L'Elisir d'Antore is a delight, and it only needs to be seen and enjoyed by an audience capable of appreciating it. It is much more satisfactory than the same producer's Falstafl, but not, I think, for the reason which was being put forward last week, that Doni- zetti's music virtually never demands one's com- plete attention and is indeed all the better for plenty of activity on the stage. This is true, but it is not the explanation of the superiority of the Donizettian Zeffirelli to the Verdian. There is quite as profuse an invention at work in the new production, but it is controlled and governed at every turn (as in the other it was not) by the character of the drama.

There is, I am aware, a school of chicken- hearted opera lovers who deplore all realism and desire their opera to be as artificial as possible, as remote from life. These iguanodons of the stalls, with the carnivores they support (the divas and their modern imitators), exalt the singer as the First Cause, yearn for the bad old days of star systems, ramshackle productions full of delicious incongruity, and the Ring Zoo, and resent the intrusion of the cinema (Zeffirelli and Visconti) on their ancient rites. Their attitude is an fond only a sophisticated variant of Mr. Philip Hope-Wallace's immortal American's dictum : 'Opera—that's where you stab a guy, and instead of bleeding, for Christ's sake he sings!' But for all who dare to believe in opera as a true and dignified art whose subject is life and the human passions raised to an intenser reality, Zeffirelli is a gift not to be despised, least of all when he works, as he does here, in such profound and penetrating sympathy With the heart of his material. For underneath the trappings of its conventional form (charmingly realised in Zeffi- relli's designs at Glyndebourne) are real people and common, recognisable emotions, and he has made us conscious of them without imposing on the music, without protesting too much and in- flating Donizetti's slender creation into some- thing which it is not.

This quickening has been achieved by placing, against a vivid background of bustling village life, principal characters who are vital, complex, plausible human beings. The tact with which he blends realism and artifice is so masterly that Signor Alva can appear in the first scene clutching a white rabbit without making us feel for an instant that the producer has sacrificed robust- ness to affectation, and even the curtain calls, taken 'in character,' through a kind of special slot or door in the main curtain, with Nemorino sheepishly shuffling out behind a swaggering Belcore and being relentlessly bowed back again by the inveterate lifeman Dr. Dulcamara, seem neither extravagant nor coy but genuinely amus- ing. From the first, Zeffirelli, while staying within the conventions of the form, gives us the illusion of watching an actual community of men and women, made up of relationships of, which we can see a fraction but sense much more; the chorus brandishing pitchforks and wheeling barrows of cardboard hay or lounging about in monstrous straw hats are at once a quintessen- tial chorus in any Italian comic opera and a group of distinguishable individual villagers. There is a fundamental earthiness in the prettiest manceuvres.

This double vision reaches a brilliant intensity in the second scene, where the quack Dulcamara arrives with his pony and pantechnicon in the village square. Here, and elsewhere, everything is calculated so as to contribute to the sense of life. But the background never obtrudes; the sur- prised face (belonging to that Glyndebourne veteran, Mr. Harold Williams, in one of several splendid metamorphoses) peeping out of a top window at the approach of the doctor's trumpet, the whiskered disapproving citizen who alone in the crowd sits on stolidly over his glass, un- moved by Dulcamara's sales talk, the painful hesitations of a Pair of black-bombazined spin- sters tremulously consulting their spiritual men- tor, the notary, on the propriety of ipvesting in the elixir, the young serving girl at the wedding feast who, when most of the guests have gone, falls asleep against the back of an empty chair —these and many other memorable details are touched in with unfailing delicacy. '

It is the same with his handling of the chief characters. Eugenia Ratti, with touchingly awkward gestures, and a dark, sidelong eye (which she was working perhaps too relentlessly on the first night) plays Adina not as a con- ventional opera Intfla flirt but as a self-conscious young girl whose fickleness comes from an un- sureness of herself playing on a heart that is warmer than she knows. Miss Ratti's perform- ance is vocally less attractive than her Nanetta at Edinburgh in 1956, and some of her high notes were troubling her, and us, last week; but it is an admirable character study. Equally, Luigi Alva's Nemorino is not the usual pigeon-toed, feebly grinning half-wit, but a shy, solitary, naive and virile young man with just enough of the bumpkin to make his humiliation and credulity plausible without arousing the sneeking feeling that this wretched fellow hardly deserves to get the girl. His is a superb performance; and alone among the cast it is really well sung. The same cannot truthfully be said of Carlo Badioli's rather tight-voiced Dulcamara. Yet I would forgive him anything for the wonderful relish and strutting precision of his acting. Here again this is not the stagily extravagant fantasy figure we so often see, but a sharply observed, timeless study of a greasy and plausible small-time Italian rogue; I shall long savour the sight of that preening, portly little men, with his swelling belly fes- tooned with bogus medals and his self-esteem, his fleshy Roman nose and wickedly alert eye Primed for fresh swindles, and the seedy panache of his practised gestures—the polished armoury of a complete comedian. Indeed I do not wish to give the impression that this production is other than exceedingly funny; but its humour is the richer for being founded in reality. Next week I hope to write about Berlioz, with -particular reference to Romeo and Juliet, the Bath Festival's L'Enfance du Christ, and (weather permitting) the open-air performance of the Funereal and Triumphal Symphony in Regent's Park on June 6.