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The Elixir of Love [Image courtesy of English National Opera]
21 Sep 2011

The Elixir of Love, ENO

It’s easy to dismiss the undoubted charms of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love with a wry smile and a dash of condescension.

Gaetano Donizetti: The Elixir of Love

Nemorino: Ben Johnson; Adina: Sara Tynan; Belcore: Benedict Nelson; Dr Dulcamara: Andrew Shore; Giannetta: Ella Kirkpatrick. Conductor: Russ Macdonald. Director: Jonathan Miller. Revival Director: Elaine Tyler-Hall. Set Design: Isabella Bywater. Lighting Design: Hans Äke-Sjöquist. English National Opera, London Coliseum. Thursday 15th September 2011.

Above image courtesy of English National Opera


But, if we imagine that love potions, placebos and quackery, are a thing of the past, we only have to remember that there’s still a vibrant market for Viagra and rhino horn.

So, it’s clear that the follies and frailties which are gently lampooned in Donizetti’s tale have not yet been eradicated, and Jonathan Miller’s production, while indulgently charming, never lets the cynical gaze drop: Nemorino’s transfiguration from simple-minded mechanic to James Dean look-a-like is effected by a lusty swig of cheap Kentucky bourbon; the gushing adoration of the female population is motivated more by his recent monetary good fortune than any sudden recognition of his innate qualities as a lover and husband. Human gullibility is still going strong.

First seen at ENO in February 2010, Miller’s 1950s Mid-Western re-location works a treat — the rolling golden plains and sky-blue expanse which stretch as far as the eye can see evoke an innocent place far from modern urbanity; the homespun folk are just ripe for exploitation by an itinerant charlatan.

We are invited to relax and enjoy ourselves at ‘Adina’s Diner’, a bustling watering hole superbly imagined by Isabella Bywater, in a naturalist recreation of the era, all clashing complementary tones of vibrant pink and green. This revival hasn’t managed to overcome an innate challenge presented by the set, however; for while the resourceful rotation of the design is inventive, the interior itself is rather too cramped. When the whole town crowd inside there’s barely room to breathe, let alone sing and dance, and the chorus are often static and unengaging. That said, in the opening scene Nemorino (Ben Johnson) seemed further forward than I remembered from the previous run, enabling him to be more clearly heard above orchestra and chorus, and effectively drawing the audience’s attention to his downheartedness and romantic dilemma from the start.

Andrew Shore’s performance as the nattily dressed Dr Dulcamara, equipped with a silken tongue and a sharp nose for commercial opportunities, won him an Olivier nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Opera in 2010, and he’s certainly the star of the show. Gliding into the town in a gleaming Cadillac cabriolet — even the desert dust can’t dampen the dazzle of his entrance — this slick fraudster so genuinely relishes his own ingenuity, warmly encouraging all who dash to sample his wares that he’s almost impossible to dislike. As usual, Shore’s diction is exemplary — no need for surtitles as he assuredly launches into his glib advertising sales pitch: “If you reek of halitosis/ Then take a couple of doses”.

He’s undoubtedly the star-turn, but there is a danger that it might seem as if the whole production has been designed as a Shore-showcase, were it not for the impressive performance of Sarah Tynan returning to the role of Adina. The pert blonde bob flawlessly coiffed, the Monroe-wiggle honed to perfection, Tynan evinces confidence and allure, her voice luscious and full.

As the naïve, nerdy, love-struck Nemorino, Ben Johnson certainly pulled the heartstrings. He is in full command of the Italianate style, his phrases elegantly shaped; and his attractive tone is complemented by convincing acting, the comic gestures discreet but telling. The ardent yearnings of “Una furtiva lagrima” can seem a little out of place after the preceding light-hearted mischief, and I found Johnson rather too intense: it seemed impossible that this garage dunce could feel passions so profound, and express sentiments so earnest. However, Johnson had all the notes — although there were a few rough edges as he strove for depth of feeling — and the aria was well-received; it evidently moved the hearts of the audience, if not the money-grabbing girls of the town.

Benedict Nelson, as Belcore, demonstrated a pleasing, focused tone, although his voice is a little too light-weight for this auditorium and did not always carry. Nelson’s was an intelligent dramatic interpretation: he did not overdo the brash blustering, and for once it did not seem incredible that Adina might fall for Belcore’s charms. And, in his Act 2 confrontation with Nemorino the two men worked effectively together.

Despite fine performances from all the principals — including Ella Kirkpatrick as an alert, smart Giannetta — the show did not always sparkle, however. Russ Macdonald’s tempi were simply too slow, the instrumental playing too leaden; and the overall effect was more toffee apple than candyfloss. That said, the astuteness of Miller’s perceptions, aided by Kelley Rourke’s witty ‘translation’ (although while the Americanisms — “knuckle sandwich”, “hello cupcake” - pay effective homage to Porter and Sondheim, the cast’s American accents are less consistent), and impressive performances in the central roles, make for a highly agreeable, satisfying evening.

Claire Seymour

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