NEW YORK - How grand does the Metropolitan Opera have to be?
The question arises when a featherweight comedy such as Donizetti's The Elixir of Love appears in the ultra-beady spotlight that comes with a new production starring the house's hottest soprano, Anna Netrebko, plus the season's first high-def movie-theater simulcast Saturday.
When Luciano Pavarotti was singing this opera, one of his specialties, the grandeur took care of itself, given what a unique force he was at the box office. People came to see him and waited patiently through the dopey plot - a lovelorn bumpkin hopes to win the alluring Adina with a magic elixir - just to hear him sing the opera's one indisputable claim to posterity, the great tenor aria "Una furtiva lagrima."
And now? Does The Elixir of Love have the stuffing to fill a 4,000-seat house, not to mention the HD cameras that will beam it to six Philadelphia-area movie theaters at 12:55 p.m. Saturday?
The Met would seem to have all the right people on board to allow the piece to make a case for itself. Director Bartlett Sher not only redeemed South Pacific on Broadway but made Rossini's dramaturgically dated Barber of Seville into one of the great romps to be had at the Met. But unless something radically different from opening night happens, this experience is likely to be engaging in a middling sort of way, inviting few repeat visits for the Nov. 7 encore transmission.
Michael Yeargan's sets are mostly handsome, but basic and representational. Sher brings about as much dramatic truth as possible to the situation without going too high-concept, scaling the story for the particular station in life occupied by the cast. Netrebko has anything but the customary soubrette Adina voice - she sounds more like a mezzo of late - and though she still sings the role well, the character's small-town innocence isn't convincing.
She's a bit older, roguishly wears a top hat, and seems to have a complicit relationship with Dr. Dulcamara, who dispenses the elixir (from a wagon that seems rather smaller than he is) and also supplies firearms to gunrunners. As Act II develops, the couple come together only when outside their social milieu: They're outdoors in a vividly colored field, mirroring their newfound freedom from inner emotional constraints.
The one major twist here is setting the opera against the backdrop of the risorgimento that unified Italy. Given that there is little resonance between that historic event and the lightweight plot, the twist is more of a dead end - assuming you can even see it. (From some of the sight lines in the house, guns and soldiers were barely visible).
So the only way to fill the Pavarotti slot is to simply do it, which tenor Matthew Polenzani does in his own way. His voice is smaller, more precise, and his sensibility is much deeper. His Nemorino isn't simply riddled by loneliness, but seems to be grasping at his one last chance. This is expressed by a thoroughly unlabored vocal production, so much that Polenzani's high notes don't enjoy the usual hierarchy but are part of a larger musical idea.
That may not be the most glamorous way to go, but you're grateful for it after hearing the charmless, generalized vocalism of baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, whose main appeal lies in the dashing poses he strikes playing Belcore, Nemorino's romantic rival. As Dulcamara, one is in good hands with Ambrogio Maestri, who has a good command of the music's style and knows how to do Italian buffa comedy without being ridiculous - particularly since the cast receives respectful support from conductor Maurizio Benini but not a lot of personality.