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Donizetti, The Elixir of Love: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the English National Opera. A new production by Jonathan Miller in an English adaptation by Kelley Rourke. Conductor: Pablo Heras-Casado. London Coliseum, 19.2.2010 (JPr)

Sarah Tynan (Adina) and John Tessier (Nemorino)
Picture ©  Tristram Kenton/ENO


If you use any search engine to find L’elisir d’amore you will see it described as one of the staples of the comic opera repertory. Many current directors of this opera though treat the term ‘comic’ as ironic and seem obliged to strip the work of most of its laughter quotient. This goes side by side with updating it to 1950s or 1960s in some new setting or other and then throwing in some film references. This is certainly the case with Laurent Pelly’s 2007 production at Covent Garden (see review) where the action is set in the Italy of Fellini’s 1960s film, La Dolce Vita, around a roadside Trattoria. At ENO too, everything is equally solidly three-dimensional and the action (such as it is) takes place in the American mid-West of the late 1950s/early 1960s inside ‘Adina’s Diner’ – I wonder how long it took to come up with that name? – complete with a poster of the Clark Gable 1940 film ‘Strange Cargo’ on the wall.

Whereas Pelly gives us pushbikes, mopeds and a lorry for Dulcamara, Dr Miller gives us a vintage motorbike and a Cadillac for the quack doctor. The roadside settings and the backdrop of sun-drenched cornfields are also similar. At Covent Garden the only laugh-out-loud moment came thanks to a small Jack Russell that ran across the stage and at the Coliseum the only time I had to laugh was at the insertion of a flushing toilet during the moment when Giannetta reveals to her girlfriends that Nemorino has become rich because his uncle has died. There is actually very little darkness at all  in this opera, except maybe for the age-old stories about the gullibility of the masses who believe in the charlatan Dulcamara’s cure-all, the timeless idea that wealth is sexy (otherwise how would so many ugly rich men be married to such beautiful women?) and the dangers of going to war emphasised when Nemorino enlists because he is strapped for cash.

Isabella Bywater’s design for the diner is quite restrictive and claustrophobic limiting the characters' movements and  certainly does not work well at the start of Acts I and II when the principal characters seem to be hidden in the milling throng of ‘customers’. This Elixir is in fact only new only to the UK  having  been seen already in Stockholm and New York – perhaps the stages are necessarily smaller there than at the Coliseum which might focus the attention better on the interior of the diner at certain points.

In the programme Kelley Rourke argued that Felice Romano’s libretto is ‘well-suited for transposition to simple small town setting’ because it is ‘just a sweet story of unrequited love, populated with familiar characters: the quack salesman, the louche ladies man, and the saucy girl next door who steals everyone’s heart.’ As a result of this thinking, it was decided to use Americanisms and to attempt American accents throughout. Examples were  ‘a knuckle sandwich,’  ‘a brewski and my baby’ and  ‘Uncle Joe kicked the bucket’ alongside homages to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in ‘an elixir with a kick, sir’ and to Cole Porter's ‘It’s delicious, it’s de-lovely’. To my mind, none of this carried through with any real conviction; the chorus sing throughout as though the opera was by Gilbert and Sullivan, only a very few American vowels were used and those that were included  came from most of the principals only at the end of a sung phrase. For some strange reason too, John Tessier - who used his own Canadian accent - sounded mostly rather Irish which affected his singing so that he became very reminiscent of old John McCormack recordings. Nothing especially bad about aspiring to that of course,  but I wondered is that was what he really intended.

Adina is shown as  a blonde bombshell, coquettish rather than voluptuous, with the eyes of all the men on her but with her own gazed fixed firmly on the cash register's takings. At the beginning of the opera, there is simply not enough chemistry between her and the gauche gas pump attendant, Nemorino, or even later when he transforms into James Dean in Act II. To be honest,  I thought she looked as though Adina  liked Julia Sporsén’s perky Giannetta best of all – and that would certainly have put a different slant on things. Adam Green stepped in for David Kempster who was ill and his take on Belcore was all John Barrowman swagger and white toothy grin, even though in his uniform I suppose he was meant to be Elvis. Andrew Shore’s Dulcamara was the star turn of the evening though his smarmy snake-oil salesman seemed much too readily embraced by the ‘yokels’ he announced himself to be one of:  for me he seemed decidedly reigned-in and in need of a touch more bluster and bravado. Strangely too, when he is given a delightful double entendre at the start of Act II and he announces that  ‘I’ve got a little ditty’, the humorous moment is lost because he says it directly to those in the diner rather than putting it out into the auditorium with a wink for us all to laugh at.  This was unusual because rather than singing to anyone else on stage for  much of the evening, most characters remained steadfastly eyes front towards the audience.

Tessier is a clear, lyrical but small-voiced Nemorino and lacks the Italianate sob in his voice to makes us truly connect emotionally with his romanza  ‘I saw a tear fall silently’ however well-sung it is. Perhaps too he needed  cleare direction to make his transformation from grease monkey to object of female adoration more believable. As Adina, Sarah Tynan sings with a bright, light voice of great agility but she too rarely reveals any great warmth vocally or dramatically. Adam Green, once he had overcome his initial understandable nervousness at stepping in for David Kempster, was a suitably cocky and bellicose Belcore.

Making his ENO debut is the young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado and overall, though not without subtlety and well played by the reliable ENO orchestra, his was a rather ponderous account of Donizetti’s frothy score. There were a few too many awkward gear changes in his tempi that occasionally took those on stage slightly by surprise and a lack of control of volume  occasionally overwhelmed his principal singers and ENO's valiant chorus.

Circumstances kept me away from the first night of this ‘new’ production so I was at the London Coliseum exactly a week later for this second performance. During the intervening period I deliberately avoided reading any of the critical responses to that earlier performance and after having seen the production myself,  I was glad for ENO's sake, to find that they were generally positive and and will doubtless yield some good quotes for future publicity purposes. I am clearly out of step with the mass of opinions here and wish I could say that my generally negative thoughts about the production are wrong,  but I do not believe that to be exactly the case. My own views, for what they are worth, are certainly coloured by the fact that my very first L’elisir d’amore was in 1981 with Nicolai Gedda as Nemorino and Geraint Evans as Dulcamara, two members of a generation of performers whose like we will probably never see again. But even so, my major concern was not with the overall quality of the singing which, taking everything into consideration, was of a high enough level,  but with Dr Miller's staging. He and I  - and most others involved in devising it, I imagine - will  doubtless continue to differ about how good it is.

Jim Pritchard


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