|foto: Facebook Ambrogio Maestri|
Ever since the moment that it was announced on the blog that Rolando would return to Barcelona to reprise his role as Nemorino, I determined that somehow, someway, I was going. Clearly the stars had aligned: Barcelona, the villazonistas, dear Teresa, the Liceu, L’elisir d’amore, and Rolando in one of his signature roles. This was not to be missed! Yes, this meant coming four thousand miles for two performances lasting a few hours, shedding serious doubts on the sanity of an otherwise fairly rational human being. Fortunately, I didn’t have to rob a bank to do this, although a few years in jail would have been well worth the price of this trip.
The pleasures of this experience were countless, but amongst the most memorable were being able to meet so many villazonistas in person. Somehow, upon meeting, we began talking in mid sentence as though we had known each other for years. Meeting Teresa was very special to me. I could write a separate essay about that, but perhaps another time and in another context. (I can’t help smiling as I write this, dear Teresa!) So here we were, coming from near and far, for Rolando. For Rolando!
I had first come to know Rolando from the Vienna recording of L’elisir d’amore, so this opera has always been particularly dear to me. Then followed the Barcelona recording and those iconic performances. Teresa pointed out in the post following the premier that the expectations for Rolando were huge. It crossed my mind that Rolando must be a masochist: who in his right mind would take on this risky business? I knew these performances would not be a repeat of those of 2005, but who would this Nemorino be?
First the premier. It was a given that this night would be staggering for me, so I entered el Gran Teatre del Liceu, found my seat, then stopped to take in the grandeur of the Teatre. What a difference from the massive and overwhelming cavern that is the Metropolitan Opera! The Liceu, for all of its magnificence, seemed friendlier and warmer, sized for human beings, not giants.
I waited…and waited…for what seemed an eternity.
Then the lights dimmed and the “birds” began to sing. There is Nemorino at the window, soon making his way down the stairs. The first thing that strikes me is Rolando’s movement on the stage. Athletic, graceful, agile, fluid. He “works” the stage with such ease, and no movement is wasted. Everything is there for a reason, and it contributes to the character. On a DVD, you cannot appreciate the extent of his command of the stage because the camera is not always on him. But now you can see the range of what he does. Then comes “Quanto è bella, quanto è cara.” There is that voice that you can pick out of a thousand with ease! Right there, live, in front of me. We have all attempted in vain to describe that voice to no avail, so I won’t even bother to attempt it here. Well, you’ll permit me one more analogy, then I promise I’ll stop that futile business: a warm blanket on a cold night. Ah! There. No more.
I’ve always thought that there are two critical attributes to a great Nemorino: he must be both adorable and poignant. From the very first moments, Rolando is working his magic, drawing the audience in, compelling us to adore Nemorino whether we want to or not. A large part of this is irresistible charm and pure physical comedy, manifested at every turn. You can’t take your eyes off of him, or you will miss a gesture, a detail, a look that is like no other.
Rolando’s flair for physical comedy is dazzling. The stairs on both sides of the stage are one of Rolando’s main props for gags. Whether he’s bouncing down the stairs on his posterior or ascending, taking a sharp turn on the landing, or hanging precariously on the railing (gasp!), he’s taking every advantage of whatever is on stage. One of the new gags occurs when Nemorino is attempting to eavesdrop on the conversation between Adina and Belcore as they plan their wedding. So as not to be seen, he slides down the steps on his stomach head first. Really? Yes, head first! I shake my head: only Rolando. Genius. Brilliant. Dangerous. The stunts of Harold Lloyd come to mind.
As the first act progresses, you grasp the heart of the matter: Rolando makes you care about Nemorino. You feel for Nemorino. What happens to him matters to you. Is the audience irresistibly drawn in? You find the answer in the scene in which the date of the wedding has been moved up to that very night. Nemorino sings, “Adina! Quest'oggi…No!” The way he utters that “No” is so touching, so poignant, that the whole audience as one murmurs “Aww,” in support of their unlikely hero. At that moment, I’m finding it hard to hold things together.
“Una furtive lagrima” is heartbreaking, luminous, and full of longing. It begins with the simple but powerful gesture of extending his hand up to the balcony across the stage, reaching out to Adina, who is so near and yet so far. The aria concludes, and the audience erupts into a thunderous roar. The warmth and tender affection shown by the audience to their Nemorino and the joy on Rolando’s face melt your heart.
The program ends with a swirl of images and sounds: Rolando clapping enthusiastically and encouraging us to clap in unison with him, hugs and kisses all around, and a final wave goodbye to the delighted audience. The television review the following day described it as a “real party.” What an understatement!
The second performance (the 30th) held its own very different set of surprises. Teresa has described the hubbub created by the royals and the less than cordial welcome they received. This is not an audience of tepid responses.
All these fireworks subsided, and my second and final performance began. The first performance was so overwhelming for me that I missed some of the details that I observed in the second performance. This time I could focus on the new Nemorino that Rolando had created. What struck me the most had to do with that second critical attribute, the one much more difficult to convey: the poignancy of our hero. In this Nemorino, I saw the poignancy that only experience brings. The poignancy of life when it doesn’t go as expected, not necessarily in a bad way, or a feeling of hope slipping away. The poignancy of life experienced intensely, with both joy and melancholy intertwined. It was clear to me that Rolando, both the human being and the artist, had been someplace, many places, and had something very new and very wonderful to offer in this Nemorino.
The vehicle of this poignancy is the poetry of the character and the artist: the extended arm, the longing gaze, the exquisite lyrics, and the sweet music, all so full of emotion. Music and poetry are the languages of emotion, but they succeed only when they move us. For that infinitesimal moment, time and the boundaries between human beings are suspended, and we partake of something that is bigger than we are and realize what is quintessentially human in us.
Never was this more apparent than in the second act when Rolando began to show signs that he was clearly fighting a cold. Despite not feeling his best, Rolando dug deeply within himself to continue. And it was what he made of this moment that mattered. Yes, some of Rolando’s notes were not perfect, but “Una furtiva lagrima” was something given to us with his whole body and soul, with everything that he had, through sheer force of will, heart, and determination. It was the gift of himself. Perhaps it was flawed, but it was so full of feeling and raw emotion, that we saw ourselves in him. Not a machine, but a human being. The audience knew EXACTLY what was going on, and as he concluded, he was showered with cheers and bravos that equaled if not exceeded those of the 27th. Clearly moved by this outpouring of affection, Rolando placed his hand on his heart and beamed at his adoring public in thanks for a warm embrace of unconditional love that I have never, ever, seen before in a theatre. It made me think of Thomas Hardy (Tess of the d’Urbervilles): “It was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.” It may not have been a flawless performance, but I would not have traded it for another, nor for the world.
Once again, the evening ended in a blur of cheers, bravos, and applause, making it clear that the real royalty present that night was there before us on the stage. With Rolando, the human being and the artist are two sides of the same royally-minted coin, the mould for which was shattered after that one and only use. It was a privilege to be there both nights and a cherished memory of our one and only Nemorino that I will never forget.
Joanna from New York