TV REVIEW : 'L'Elisir' Dazzles Despite Weaknesses

A big, new production studded with a suitably starry cast and James Levine in the pit--these are the tip-offs of a dressy "Metropolitan Opera Presents" feature, with tonight's buffa delight, "L'Elisir d'Amore," airing on PBS (KCET Channel 28 at 8).

To be sure, there's Luciano Pavarotti as Nemorino, the bumpkin who thinks he needs a love potion to win his inamorata's heart. And there's Kathleen Battle, the adorable Adina, keeping him at arm's length all the while sending signals to the contrary.

But celebrated larynxes decorously framed can take a production only so far. And when cameras zoom in for close-ups of characters relatively uninvolved with each other (disastrous on the small screen), otherwise going for long shots of regimental show, there's not enough to hold a viewer consistently in thrall.

The paradox--that more people view a single opera telecast than the production's combined in-house audiences over the seasons--is seldom taken into account by directors; without dramatic realignments from stage to screen, the results can be haphazard.

Still, this John Copley staging--new last season--boasts a charm that sometimes leaps the divide. Its sunny, storybook set by Beni Montresor, with sherbet-hued panels rising and falling on cue, intermittently makes an impact.

The real pleasures of the performance, however, center on Battle--her look, at first pert and picture pretty, then heartsick; her voice, tenderly dulcet and radiant. Consumed with entreaties to Nemorino, she sends out a delirium of cascading notes, seamless scales and glittering passages that soar fearlessly and flawlessly into the stratosphere--all of it held to an emotional tether synonymous with Adina's outpourings of love.

At this stage in his career, Pavarotti cannot muster all the vocal purity and freshness he earlier guaranteed. Even the big tune, "Una furtiva lagrima," sounds under par (although he recoups elsewhere in the ardent cantilena), while quicker passages find him lacking in agility and breath control.

A Walter Matthau-ish Enzo Dara manages Dulcamara's patter ably, while Juan Pons is a reticent Belcore. Levine brings equal parts lyric poise and frothy momentum to the orchestral proceedings on behalf of Donizetti.

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