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11 Aug 2019

Get Into Opera with this charming, rural L'elisir

Site-specific operas are commonplace these days, but at The Octagon Barn in Norwich, Genevieve Raghu, founder and Artistic Director of Into Opera, contrived to make a site persuasively opera-specific.

Norwich Into Opera Festival: L’elisir d’amore

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Andrew Slater (Dulcamara)

All images © Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals

 

Raghu’s production of Donizetti’s nineteenth-century comic gem, L’elisir d’amore, which set the action in rural Norfolk during World War 1, nestled naturally into the 17th-century barn - built c.1700 as a non-conformist Methodist meeting chapel - and the vibrant singing and playing of an esteemed cast, the talented Into Opera Youth Company and the Istante Collective, led by the galvanising baton of John Andrews, swelled euphoniously into the octagonal vaulted roof of the central atrium.

With the farmers and field-labourers having departed to play their patriotic part in WW1, it falls upon the women to ditch their dresses, don the dungarees and trade the parlour for the pitchfork and plough. When Adina learns of her father’s death, she is roused from her grief by her duty to keep the fields tilled and the harvest reaped. The womenfolk valiantly pull on their wellies, dig up potatoes and hoist milk churns. Having stepped up to the mark and rallied the home front troops, Adina’s not that eager to relinquish her command when Sergeant Belcore arrives on the farm. Nemorino - the loyal, lovelorn farmhand who’s stayed at home to help his beloved Adina - is equally disconcerted by his rival’s military swagger. But, help is at hand in the form of the nattily dressed Dulcamara, a travelling salesman whose magical medicines promise the gullible rustics health, wealth and happiness …

Fleur de Bray Adina pig!.jpgFleur de Bray (Adina).

Designer Lorenzo Russo Rainaldi has a ready-made set at his disposal. All that’s needed to fully immerse us in life on the farm are some dangling horseshoes, a few agricultural accoutrements and wooden crates bursting with ripe apples and verdant carrots. The verisimilitude is aided by Ben Ormerod’s discrete lighting and, especially, Jasmine Ricketts’ imaginatively devised choreography which neatly and slickly conjures the busyness and bustle of farm life within the confines of the fairly small stage. Raghu makes the most of the dimensions of the venue to suggest a wider expanse and her attention to detail is notable. She establishes and sustains a narrative with a consistency and credibility which is sadly all too rare in more familiar, ‘conventional’ opera houses.

Adina and cast.jpgFleur de Bray (Adina) and ensemble.

Raghu’s direction of the Into Opera Youth Company is exemplary. The children burst vigorously and joyfully onto the stage straight from the fields, clutching bunches of freshly harvested carrots, and confidently find their places at the foot of the stepladder upon which Adina is perched, reading a book. They listen avidly to her tales of Tristan and Isolde, grabbing the book to gobble up the amorous adventures, then snatch it from each other, eager for saucy snippets. When Nemorino ventures a peek, an insouciant young hand turns the tome up the correct way. Raghu involves the young singers throughout: they provide Belcore with a sunflower with which to woo Adina, spy on the romantic rivalries and form a hearty-voiced, readymade rural troupe of bridesmaids and page boys dressed, of course, as bunnies, chicks and piglets.

Belcore sunflower.jpgFleur de Bray (Adina) and Themba Mvula (Belcore).

The adult chorus - Emily Kirby-Ashmore (soprano), Lara Rebekah Harvey (mezzo-soprano), Gareth Edmunds and James Beddoe (tenor), and Jevan McAuley (baritone) - are managed with no less aplomb (although I wasn’t sure about Raghu’s occasional use of theatrical devices which seemed at odds with the general naturalism). They move fluently around the stage area, working and gossiping, and they dance a nifty nuptial contradance, ducking and diving under the festive bunting. When Adina rejects Belcore’s hasty advances, it’s the confident catching of the apple which the chorus have tossed teasingly amongst themselves that seals her superiority over the Sergeant.

On opening night, the cast gave a strong and consistent performance. Given the challenges presented by the open nature of the performance space, and with the conductor and instrumentalists placed to the left of the stage, the singers’ intonation and ensemble were both impressively accurate.

Fleur de Bray has an attractive but fairly light soprano and in the ensembles her Adina sometimes failed to soar with quite enough gleam and brightness. But, de Bray took immense care over her characterisation and the vocal phrasing. This Adina was determined rather than feisty, and her affection for Nemorino was apparent from the first. ‘Prendi, per me sei libero’ throbbed with heartfelt feeling. I’ve enjoyed Thomas Elwin’s performances with Classical Opera, though looking back it’s interesting to see that I thought that in Haydn’s Applausus at Cadogan Hall in March 2018 he ‘did not always make the extended melodic gestures cohere, but his tone was appealing’, for I’d suggest that the same was true here. Elwin has a sure technique, acts astutely, and can make an individual phrase tell; but ‘Una furtiva lagrima’, though focused and at times affecting, did not convince me that Elwin has yet mastered the art of building the individual units into a cohesive expressive unity. But, I’m probably being unfairly ‘picky’; Elwin’s Nemorino was beguiling and all in the Barn were clearly delighted when the honest lad got his girl.

Tristan Nemorino.jpgThomas Elwin (Nemorino).

Sofia Troncoso made an impressive mark as Giannetta: her mezzo has real punch, clarity and brightness and - in common with all the cast - she acted attentively. As Dulcamara, Andrew Slater blustered a bit at times - more speech than song - though the climaxes and cadences always hit the target with panache. But, he was a genial charlatan, keen to make a quick buck from his vats of vodka and cider aka elixirs, and not unduly manipulative. It was a neat idea to have Dulcamara’s phlegmatic sidekick - a touch of Leporello here, delivered with style by a member of the Youth Chorus - provide the horn player with a sheet of music indicating the required entrance fanfare.

Dulcamara and Nemorino.jpgThomas Elwin (Nemorino) and Andrew Slater (Dulcamara).

I had been impressed by Themba Mvula’s 2017 performance in the premiere of Louis Mander’s The Life to Come , with Surrey Opera, and that he so swiftly settled into the shoes of the braggart Belcore says much for the range of his acting. Mvula worked hard - perhaps the effort was a little too evident at times, though admittedly we were seated very close to the stage - and balanced boldness and blunderbuss effectively. ‘Come Parido vezzoso’ was rather plodding; hopefully the tempo picked up for subsequent performances. There’s a fine singing actor here, though, and we’ll undoubtedly be seeing more of Mvula.

Sergeant B and Nemorino.jpgThemba Mvula (Belcore) and Thomas Elwin (Nemorino).

Into Opera were lucky to have conductor John Andrews at the helm: unfussy but meticulous, encouraging but also demanding of high standards, he conducted a fluent performance which sailed forth confidently, the busy finales making absolute musical and dramatic ‘sense’.

Into Opera was launched in September 2017 with the aim of getting ‘more and more people into opera’. Their first project, A King’s Ransom, involved a collaboration with composer Patrick Hawes and hundreds of primary school children across Norfolk. This production ofL’elisir marked the inaugural season of the Norfolk Into Opera Festival. The opening night was preceded by a hog roast in the grounds of The Octagon Park, and followed by a Gala Concert, Opera Unwrapped, with a selection of acclaimed opera singers, including tenor Christopher Turner and soprano Sofia Troncoso, and two further matinee performances of L’elisir. Raghu confidently declares:

“We will create high quality opera experiences which are affordable and don’t break the bank. We are starting a creative revolution to overturn this negative stigma and instead, enthuse communities about the potential of this art form. We want to convince you about the ability of opera to bring people together, to tell compelling stories and to make us think about questions that are relevant and important to the society and world in which we live today.”

I’m pretty sure that anyone who drank the Elixir of Opera in Norwich last week will need no persuading.

Claire Seymour

Adina - Fleur de Bray, Nemorino - Thomas Elwin, Belcore - Themba Mvula, Dulcamara - Andrew Slater, Giannetta - Sofia Troncoso; Director - Genevieve Raghu, Conductor - John Andrews, Designer - Lorenzo Russo Rainaldi, Lighting Designer - Ben Ormerod, Movement Director - Jasmine Ricketts, Into Opera Chorus and Youth Chorus, Istante Collective.

The Octagon Barn, Little Plumstead, Norwich; Thursday 8th August 2019.

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