The Elixir of Love, English National Opera, ENO at the London Coliseum, February 2010

Andrew Shore as Dulcamara and Sarah Tynan as Adina. Photo by Tristram Kenton

This Donizetti opera with its wonderful libretto by Felice Romani, doyen of the Italian librettists of his day, is always a treat. Having seen it so many times in productions set in 19th century Italy, I’ve sometimes wondered what the original would have felt like in 1832, in what would have been the rather limited rural society of the day. This new Jonathan Miller production — imported from the New York City Opera — shows us, by placing the action in 1950s America. The programme claims it’s the American Midwest, the notes that I read say the American Southwest, and the car driven by Dulcamara has a Texas number plate — take your pick. Wherever it is, it works well, with designs by Isabella Bywater and lighting by Hans-Åke Sjöquist.

Having the libretto in English may disappoint some who love the Italian, but this adaptation by Kelley Rourke is very effective. When the beautiful young Adina, looking like Marilyn Monroe and running a diner, sings “Oh, Tristan conquering hero come take me as your bride”, we need no surtitles, and we know that here is no simple country girl. Her comment brings the idea of a love potion into focus even before Dulcamara and his bogus medicines have been seen or heard of. When he drives up in his smart and slightly dusty open top car, the small community centred on Adina’s Diner is agog, and at a dollar a bottle his cure-all is quickly snapped up.

Andrew Shore as Dulcamara did a fine job of presenting this charlatan as a man with panache — not a clown, but a fellow who would not be out of place in an auction house. And with Sarah Tynan singing beautifully as a charmingly shrewd Adina, we had two smart characters, contrasting well with the slower wits of Nemorino and Sergeant Belcore, both of whom want to marry her. Although she finds Belcore attractive, Nemorino just needs a bit of confidence in order to win his girl, and Dulcamara’s bogus love potion gives it him. There is, admittedly, his wealthy uncle in the background, whom Adina is perfectly well aware of, but she likes him for himself, and eventually gets the best of both his desire and his money. John Tessier portrayed Nemorino convincingly well, going from an abject lack of self-confidence to supreme certainty that Adina will fall for him, and David Kempster played Belcore without the exaggerated swagger one sometimes sees.

Musically this was wonderful, with the young conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, still in his early thirties, making Donizetti’s composition ring with joy and energy. The singing of Sarah Tynan was particularly good, and very well supported by Andrew Shore’s Dulcamara and John Tessier’s Nemorino. This performance was a delight to listen to, but even more of a delight to experience on stage.

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