17 Jul 2013

L’elisir d’amore, Opera Holland Park

Pia Furtado’s production of Donizetti’s gentle rom-com, L’elisir d’amore, opens in the greenhouse-laboratory of a sunflower factory — all steel trolleys and agronomic apparatus.

A rather prosaic setting for this tender tale of amorous affection, one might think, but in fact the backdrop of infinite fields of golden-headed sunflowers aspiring eagerly towards the fresh azure above, was a neat complement to the scorching summer sun outside.

Back in the factory, the workers busied themselves with seeds, samples and solutions, clad in trademark royal-blue industrial overalls, overseen by two advertising trailers bearing the portrait of the sunflower-goddess, Adina, amid a sunny pastoral paradise. Ordering the workers back to work, the boss herself overlooked the sneaky entry of a ragged brigand, one Dr Dulcamara, who proceeded to pilfer the pods and potions for his own chemical cocktails.

An interesting start, but sadly, despite designer Leslie Travers’ appealing vistas, one which didn’t really add up and quickly ran out of steam. By Act 2, with the ‘peasants’ stripped of their boiler suits and arrayed in their finery for the wedding of Belcore and Adina, the sunflowers seemed pretty irrelevant and the tray-laden trolleys, clumped together centre-stage, a redundant intrusion.

The charm of the work lies in its perfect balance of tenderness and wit, and both were somewhat lacking in this production. Only when Nemorino suggestively sponged the larger-than-life mascot-Adina — an endearing moment of na├»ve, dreamy wish-fulfilment — was a chuckle raised. Elsewhere the comedy — goose-stepping soldiers, some ‘racy’ goings-on in the trailer — was too slapstick, at times Monty Python-esque, and didn’t allow the humanity of the characters to shine through. The Holland Park Chorus, although accurate and well-marshalled, lacked the brightness of tone that was such an invigorating force in the season’s earlier production of The Pearl Fishers. There was little sense of a community of friends and fellows having fun, and too often the chorus were arranged in static clusters. Even the final chorus, when the opportunistic Dulcamara coolly cashes in on the success of his miracle medicine, was rather muted and restrained.

The sluggish tempi adopted by conductor Steven Higgins didn’t help matters. Higgins was practical and precise, and the players of the City of London Sinfonia performed, as they have done throughout the season, with customary clarity and a sure sense of a well-turned phrase. But Higgins used large gestures when small ones would have been more efficient, and didn’t quite pull off the Rossinian crescendo-accelerando, often labouring in four beats in a bar when slipping into two would have spurred things along more swiftly and slickly.

Fortunately a saviour was at hand, in the form of Sarah Tynan’s wonderful Adina. Following two recent, stellar turns in the role at English National Opera, Tynan is a total natural as the capricious minx with an essentially good heart. Factory owner or foreman, it wasn’t quite clear, but she was certainly master of the proceedings, the absolute star of the show. Coolly confident, there was not a note or nuance that was not fully in her command and, although Furtado seemed to have offered little direction, Tynan used every shade of her luscious soprano to sparkling dramatic effect, her voice agile, vibrant and unfailingly sweet.

She was well-matched by Aldo Do Toro as Nemorino. Returning to Holland Park after his well-received performance in a darker Donizettian mode, as Edgardo in Lucia, Do Toro once again revealed a warm, well-focused tenor, well-equipped to rise to the heights with no sense of strain. Simple and trusting, moving easily about the stage, he was an engaging and lovable dolt although, despite the pseudo-scientific interventions of Dulcamara, there was not much chemistry between Do Toro and Tynan.

Paradoxically, when things needed to settle back and unwind more languidly, Steven Higgins hurried along. Do Toro’s lines were smooth and well-shaped in the sentimental ‘Una furtive lagrima’, but he needed a few moments of relaxed expansion to do full justice to the Italianate lyricism.

Baritone George von Bergen was a consistent Belcore. One of the troops, as opposed to the commanding officer, this Belcore was more bluff and bluster than military might, but in his Act 1 aria, ‘Come Paride vezzoso’, von Bergen demonstrated a resonant lower register. An overly heavy vibrato occasionally marred the focus though, dulling the brightness and diminishing the impression of Belcore’s swaggering self-adulation. Rosalind Coad was a characterful Giannetta with an aptly mischievous tint to her voice.

Which brings us to the calculating chancer whose medicinal machinations are honoured in the opera’s title. Standing in at short notice for the indisposed Richard Burkhard, Geoffrey Dolton presented an idiosyncratic, but not wholly successful, interpretation of Dulcamara, far removed from the usual glib self-publicist and confident conman. Low-key, preferring to skulk in the shadows than parade in the spotlight, Dolton sang competently but rather blandly; assuming that the factory workers had a little scientific nous at their disposal, being familiar with tinctures to ‘make the garden grow’, it was hard to believe that they would be duped by Dulcamara’s rather lacklustre sales-pitch, ‘Udite, udite, o rustici’ (the anachronistic term ‘peasants’ being typical of the disappointing surtitles which also at times took considerable liberties with the libretto).

Dolton’s duet with Tynan, ‘Io son ricco e tu sei bella’, is intended to wow the wedding-feast guests and should be a show-stopping party-piece, but on this occasion there was little festive fizz; with his light and flexible baritone, Dolton can despatch Donizetti’s decorative flounces, but his voice does not really have the weight for this role. He was probably hampered too by Furtado’s sometimes underwhelming direction, particularly in Act 2, but this was a shame for an ironically masterful Dulcamara can convince us all that the tale is more than mere barmy nonsense.

L’elisir d’amore continues in rep until 3 August — go for Tynan’s dazzling Adina alone.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Adina, Sarah Tynan; Nemorino, Aldo Di Toro; Belcore, George von Bergen; Dulcamara, Geoffrey Dolton; Giannetta, Rosalind Cold; Director, Pia Furtado; Designer, Leslie Travers; Lighting Designer, Colin Grenfell; Conductor, Steven Higgins; City of London Sinfonia; Opera Holland Park Chorus. Opera Holland Park, Tuesday, 16th July 2013.