Opera + Classical Music Reviews

L’elisir d’amore is just the tonic at West Green House Opera

30, 31 July 2022

A superb cast offers a dynamic rendition of Donizetti’s classic.

L’elisir d’amore

L’elisir d’amore (Photo: Sam Smith)

Since last year West Green House Opera has been performing its main productions outside on a stage that has been built out from the small island at the centre of its lake. Next year there are plans to consolidate the structure, but Victoria Newlyn’s staging of L’elisir d’amore may already be offering a taste of what is to come. More than any other production that has hitherto been performed on the lake, it makes use of the setting both in terms of the production’s chosen theme and its utilisation of the surrounding water.

Newlyn sets the action on a river cruise with Adina being the cruise director, thus tying in with the original where she enjoys significant status as a landowner. Virtually all of the cast become crew members with Nemorino being a maritime mechanic in overalls, Giannetta being the head of housekeeping and the chorus constituting officers, cooks, cleaners, photographers and entertainment staff. The period is broadly the 1960s and the vessel is entitled Il Villaggio, which emphasises how all of those on board in practice form a village community just as is to be found in the original.

The stage itself, adorned by designer Adrian Linford with rails and lifebelts and surrounded by water, readily lends itself to feeling like a river boat. As with Le nozze di Figaro the previous weekend, the orchestra is positioned on the stage with the performers but, unlike Figaro, they are railed off to form a separate section behind. Good use is made of props so that when Adina relates the story of Tristan and Isolde there are cardboard cutouts of the figures on hand, which are there to advertise the film that will be aired on the cruise. In fact, a poster proudly boasts that Tristan e Isotta will be shown every night at 7.00pm with all of the characters including Re Marco being given their Italian names, while the cruise’s timetable advertises this in Act I and the wedding in Act II.    

A jetty floats on the lake beneath the stage and characters on occasions descend to it. More often than not in real life people climb down from a jetty to a boat rather than up, but reversing top and bottom is a devise frequently used in opera. When the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme staged Rossini’s La scala di seta in the Linbury Studio in 2014 (before it was renovated), it was impossible to insert a level halfway up the height of the stage. As a result, the bedroom where most of the action takes place was situated on the floor and people descended, rather than climbed, the silken ladder to reach it. This represents one way in which the production really makes use of its setting, and another is the manner in which Belcore is called back to active service by reading a message that someone semaphores from the shore through binoculars.

“…it makes use of the setting both in terms of the production’s chosen theme and its utilisation of the surrounding water”

The real coup is the arrival of Dulcamara as he is rowed across the lake before climbing aboard. Most productions emphasise his credentials as a travelling quack doctor by ensuring he turns up in a wagon or car and so the choice here could not be more perfect. However, for all that there are some innovative props, with Dulcamara carrying advertising cards and billboards, this production obviously cannot do what Laurent Pelly’s for the Royal Opera does. There, during ‘Udite, udite, o rustici’ the character opens up his van more and more to reveal an ever increasing number of surprises so that the delights come thick and fast. Here, there is much more emphasis on the chorus members not merely observing the spectacle but providing the visual interest in their own right as Dulcamara addresses individuals who approach him, and everyone mimes the ailments and cures of which he sings. It is this dynamism that really makes the production as the cast forms a conga line during Adina and Belcore’s wedding party, with this being just the type of dance that everyone might do on a cruise. Conversely, the company freezes (often in quite comical poses) during some of Nemorino’s arias to ensure that the focus is entirely on him.

The cast is superb, with John-Colyn Gyeantey as Nemorino displaying a ringing tenor that feels light and expansive on the one hand, and full and secure on the other. His performance of ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ brings the house down as the reflection from a glitter ball, another fixture on a cruise boat, fills the set’s back wall. Very often Nemorino is placed apart from everyone else, revealing how he is generally an outsider and onlooker rather than someone always at the centre of things. Gyeantey’s acting is highly skilful as he not only suggests the character’s sweet innocence but also the way in which he is metaphorically out of step with the crowd. How exactly he does this is not easy to explain, but one certainly feels it in his performance.

Samantha Clarke is a suitably confident and assured Adina as her soprano proves to be as assertive as it is highly pleasing. When she realises she loves Nemorino she removes her dress and dons his overalls as if she is deliberately humbling herself for him. However, by the time she actually sees him she has smartened these up a little with a yellow belt. Nicholas Lester is an extremely suave Belcore, who asserts his tremendous baritone to great effect. Here, the sergeant is a passenger taking a break from manoeuvres and looking for a holiday romance, and he certainly takes the stage by storm as he arrives in a shiny green jacket and purple shirt. Richard Walshe is an equally impressive and accomplished Dulcamara. With his firm yet warm and rounded bass-baritone, he is definitely smooth and possibly more of a force to be reckoned with than the loveable old rogue we may be more used to seeing. Tereza Gevorgyan provides excellent support as Giannetta, while Matthew Kofi Waldren’s splendid conducting of the West Green House Opera Orchestra puts the seal on a production of L’elisir d’amore that is just as delightful as it is undoubtedly dynamic.

• For details of all events at West Green House visit its website.

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L’elisir d’amore is just the tonic at West Green House Opera