Donizetti: The Elixir of Love

English National Opera

The Coliseum, London, 13 February 20093 stars

The Elixir of LoveIt was interesting to return to ENO within a week of having seen their Lucia di Lammermoor for a new production of The Elixir of Love. Donizetti's two most famous works span the generic spectrum, with Lucia at the most melodramatic end and Elixir at the most comic. And yet, just as Lucia was paced too leadenly for the visceral elements of the piece to come through, so too is Elixir lacking in enough sparkle to propel us through the evening at the rate that it ought to.

At least Jonathan Miller is professional in his approach to the piece. An updating to a 1950s Southwest American diner works perfectly well, even if it seems, quite frankly, an unnecessary intervention into the text. Funnily enough, I thought the exterior of Isabella Bywater's set was more atmospheric than the inside: somehow the interior walls aren't quite as lived-in and homey as one might expect, whereas the grime and dirt on the outside work really well. We need to feel that this is the centre of gravity for the closed society of the story, and the rotating set is effective in this respect.

One can rely on Miller to treat the different components of his concept with consistency, and there are plenty of nice touches. Adina is a blonde bombshell of the Marilyn Monroe model, and Nemorino is your Average Joe type, while Dulcamara is a flashy businessman in a classic Cadillac car and Belcore is a gum-chewing army man in uniform. The ENO chorus was notably more alert, dramatically speaking, than on many occasions, and there was a meticulousness of detail in the general direction of the singers.

That said, there's a charmlessness about the American setting: I can see why Miller and his team didn't want the production to be so sweet as to give the audience toothache, but it should still be a bit sweet, surely. The character of Adina is always a tricky one to play, because her gulling of Nemorino in the first act is ultimately sadistic, and by playing the drama against a starker background than the original libretto stipulates, Miller's Adina seems deeply unattractive underneath her groomed exterior. Nor is Dulcamara as loveable a rogue as sometimes.

The Elixir of LoveStill, it's often an ingenious show, and the cast, if not exactly distinguished, is certainly efficient. Andrew Shore, as always, nearly steals the evening in the secondary role of Dulcamara. His diction is superbly crisp – I was amused to see that the supertitles were removed for his entrance (patter) aria, no doubt at his own insistence – and if his voice didn't sound slightly tired and strained at the top, this would be a dream interpretation.

Sarah Tynan's Adina is also extremely rewarding, and if her voice seems over-weighted at times (her natural soprano is, after all, on the light side), at least she can easily be heard most of the time – unlike many of the other singers. She brings a touching poignancy to her scenes of regret at the end, and one can sense how deeply the character feels horror at how her master plan to woo Nemorino by pretending to marry Belcore has gone dreadfully wrong.

John Tessier's Nemorino doesn't quite have the impact one had hoped for, simply because he struggled to be heard until coming to the front of the stage for his second-act aria (at which point he drew well-deserved applause from the audience). He's cute and sweet in the role, and acts and sings with intelligence, as well as demonstrating the bel canto sensibility in his elegant phrasing, but his tenor sounds too tight, and lightweight, in this richly-orchestrated music. At the other end of the scale, David Kempster's Belcore sounds awkwardly out of his comfort zone in this music, struggling to bring the lyricism needed in this part, even if he embodies the character to a tee. Surprisingly, young Julia Sporsén made a great impression in the small role of Gianetta, singing with confidence and charm.

The big problem here was Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casdo, whose tempi often seemed at variance with what the singers needed (usually too leaden, but sometimes too fast). Equally problematic was his sense of balance, which prioritised the orchestra too often, and even the orchestral passages were marred by some odd imbalances between different instrumental sections. Hopefully some of these problems will settle down as the run continues; overall, though, this was a solid but unremarkable rendition of one of Donizetti's finest scores.

By Dominic McHugh

Photo Credits: Tristram Kenton


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