Watching Jonathan Miller’s new (to the ENO) production of The Elixir of Love, one of two Donizetti operas in its current season, I was reminded of his now legendary production of The Barber of Seville.
It is not just that Elixir contains two singers who appeared in The Barber’s most recent revival, John Tessier and Andrew Shore, but because once again I found the production starting questionably, improving immensely over the first half, and then keeping us on cloud nine for the whole of Act Two.
Setting the action in 1950s America, Isabella Bywater’s set is (quite literally) dazzling, and the eyes require several minutes to adjust as the curtain rises to present Adina’s lime green diner. The overall effect, however, is not as dynamic as it could be, for although hoards of people grace the stage, the vast majority remain seated or standing on one spot.
As Nemorino, John Tessier proves a fine actor from the off as he sits in a corner like the village dunce and laments his lot, his hands squeezed tight in his lap. There is, however, only so far that his fine Italianate tenor voice can take him in a piece that requires it to possess just a little more comedic bite, and he and Sarah Tynan as Adina seem to merge into their setting rather than to rise out of it.
Things turn around, however, upon the entry of Andrew Shore as Dulcamara. Arriving on stage in a Cadillac, sporting a white suit, panama and sunglasses, he delivers the most priceless comic turn as he tries to sell his elixirs. Indeed the delivery of his ‘patter song’ is so comprehensible that the surtitles are switched off for the duration, presumably being deemed an unnecessary distraction.
From here on in, the staging picks up and by the second half there is energy and humour in abundance. When Julia Sporsen’s Gianetta tells the ladies that Nemorino has just come into wealth, her singing is repeatedly interrupted by the toilet flushing from the diner, and when Dulcamara subsequently observes all of the ladies chasing after Nemorino he is inspired to down a bottle of the elixir himself.
There is also superb interaction between Shore and Tynan, whose voice warms our hearts as her costume and mannerisms mark her out as the archetypal 1950s beauty. Tessier then gives a highly moving performance of ‘I saw a tear fall silently’, whilst David Kempster proves an effective Belcore.
Perhaps the main criticism that could be levied against Pablo Heras-Casdo’s conducting is that it is sometimes a little too exuberant. Nevertheless, this remains a commendable UK opera debut for the rising Spanish-born star, and if you can’t give Elixir a bit of fruity razzmatazz, what opera can you?
It is also wonderful to see Kelley Rourke’s translation moving far beyond simply converting all currency references to dollars, to truly embed the dialogue in the lingo and culture of mid-twentieth century America. So, Dulcamara proclaims that his elixir was brewed in rural Kentucky, and Belcore asks for Nemorino’s ‘John Hancock’ (a reference to the largest signature on the Declaration of Independence) on the soldier’s signing up papers.
The ultimate achievement of Miller’s Elixir is to take an opera that can be downright silly, and raise it to the level of delightfully witty. As a result, though this production looks set to be a great crowd-pleaser, it would be wrong to dismiss it as simply that. Indeed, it is not entirely implausible that it will end up being revived just as many times as The Barber already has.