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Sarah Tynan as Adina [Photo by Tristram Kenton / ENO]
09 Mar 2010

The Elixir of Love at ENO

As a medic with a keen knowledge of psychology, Jonathan Miller probably knows a thing or two about elixirs and placebos.

Gaetano Donizetti: The Elixir of Love

Nemorino: John Tessier; Adina: Sarah Tynan; Dulcamara: Andrew Short; Belcore: David Kempster; Gianetta: Julia Sporsén. Director: Jonathan Miller. Designer: Isabella Bywater. Conductor: Pablo Heras-Casado. English National Opera, London Coliseum. Friday 12th February 2010.

Above: Sarah Tynan as Adina

All photos by Tristram Kenton / ENO


On the evidence of this production, first aired by New York City Opera, he’s not too concerned about the ‘dark side’ of medical charlatanry; for here Miller invites us to enjoy a light-hearted evening of music and food, mischief and fun, at ‘Adina’s Diner’ — a popular stopping place way out in the America Midwest, beloved by homespun yokels and travelling tricksters alike. We lap up the aural and visual candyfloss and, after a charming evening, skip home, refreshed by the reassuring spirit of innocence and optimism which prevails.

Isabella Bywater’s set is a superbly naturalistic recreation of the era. The rolling yellow plains and flawless blue sky evoke the landscapes of Edmund Hopper, and Bywater’s bubblegum pink and lime green diner recreates Hopper’s ‘Nighthawk’, albeit with a more golden, ambient glow. The revolving set is ingenious, but the dusty exterior is more successful than the interior, the latter seeming cramped and overcrowded. Despite Miller’s detailed direction of the chorus, there was simply too little room, forcing many to remain seated — including, in the opening scene, Nemorino, who, set back and enclosed by the set, was swamped by the chorus and orchestra.

Elixir_ENO_02.pngJohn Tessier as Nemorino

Into this rural eatery waltzed the confident proprietor, Adina. Sarah Tynan, sporting a peroxide bob, was perky and coquettish rather than a vamp. Her voice was as agile as her wiggling hips, and bright and warm; and she offered a lively, engaging performance, perfectly conveying the mannerisms of a 1950s blond bombshell. However, there was no sense of ’depth’ beneath the flighty surface and Tynan offered little to mitigate her cruel treatment of Nemorino.

Indeed, there was a disappointing lack of chemistry between the Adina and Nemorino, the latter presented here as a gauche garage hand. Canadian tenor John Tessier was a naïve and trusting yokel, but while his clear, true rendering was well-received, his voice is fairly light-weight and lacks an Italianate warmth and colour that hints at passionate depths beneath. Tessier’s ‘miraculous’ transformation from garage dunce to matinee idol was not entirely credible and too often he sang to the audience, rather than to the other characters on stage. However, the production did create a dramatic context for ‘Una furtive lagrima’, which for once did not seem like a convenient ‘add-on’.

Elixir_ENO_03.pngAndrew Shore as Dulcamara and company

The real star of the show was the experienced Andrew Shore, as the oleaginous quack doctor, Dulcamara. He slid in, seated in an ostentatious open-top Cadillac cabriolet (its shine a little sullied after a journey across the dusty plains), looking sharp but shifty in white suit, shades and brogues, panama hat perched rakishly on ill-fitting wig. Shore’s swindler was confident, assured, and crafty. [The automatic dispenser for Coca-Cola — that ‘pure refreshment’ that ‘revives and sustains’ — was cleverly positioned ...] Indeed, for Shore’s sparkling salesman’s pitch the surtitles disappeared — one assumes this was an intentional acknowledgement of Shore’s prowess rather than a technical hitch — but every word of Kelley Rourke’s clever libretto was crystal clear. Shore presented Rourke’s wittily rhymed medicinal claims — “You reek of halitosis/ Then take a couple of doses” — with consummate mastery, although (if one was being harsh) one might accuse him of trying a little too hard at the risk of straining the voice. The subsequent wedding celebrations were pure MGM gold. Impersonating Elvis, Shore’s line ‘I’ve got a little ditty’, drew the largest laugh of the night; and when Adina joined him ‘on-stage’ in the diner, there was considerably more knowing interaction between them than was apparent in her exchanges with the younger heart-throb Nemorino. Adina’s Marilyn drawl might have been a bit too self-knowing, but Tynan, and Miller, pulled it off, just staying short of overkill.

As a gum-chewing GI, David Kempster’s Belcore swaggered and boasted his way, temporarily to Adina’s heart. Julia Sporsén’s Gianetta was sparkling and full of life.

Elixir_ENO_05.pngDavid Kempster as Belcore and company

Miller and Bywater had clearly, and effectively, thought hard about the realism of this production. But there was one incongruity: the inconsistency between the text and its delivery, with regard to accent. It was decided (so the programme told us) to use Americanisms (‘a knuckle sandwich’, ‘hello cupcake’), to pay homage to Porter and Sondheim (‘an elixir with a kick, sir’), and to attempt American accents throughout. The problem was that no one seemed to have told the chorus, and the principals frequently only remembered at the ends of phrases, which made Tessier’s native Canadian burr seem rather out of place.

Another problem was the over-enthusiasm of the conductor. Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado, who enjoyed himself just a bit too much, encouraging the orchestra too excitedly and destroying the balance between stage and pit. Moreover, the tempi were often too slow: fine for the patter songs but fatal in the acts’ final choruses which should whip up a froth.

Elixir_ENO_04.pngSarah Tynan as Adina and Julia Sporsén as Gianetta

So, this was a charming, folksy show. Miller’s humour was of the gentle kind — Nemorino turning momentarily into a bass-baritone when swigging the elixir, the outside loo flushing incongruously as Gianetti announced Nemorino’s financial good fortune. Dulcamara’s slugging of his own elixir when he observed the ladies chasing after Nemorino drew an appreciative chuckle from the audience. However, despite its ‘silliness’, there are some shades of darkness in this work — innocence is threatened by deception, guileless by guilt, and love seems indissolubly linked to money; but such shadows were kept well under wraps in this affectionate, enjoyable show.

Claire Seymour

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