Opera + Classical Music Reviews

L’elisir d’amore review – Longborough Festival Opera brings Donizetti’s classic closer to home

20, 22, 24, 25, 27, 29 June, 1 July 2023

Exploring the puzzle of modern village life.

L'elisir d'amore

L’elisir d’amore (Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis)

L’elisir d’amore was originally set in a small village in the Basque Country at the end of the 18th century, so it is perfectly feasible to transfer the action to a modern day English village. What makes Max Hoehn’s new production for Longborough Festival Opera so clever, however, is the manner in which he explores the nature of contemporary village life. In a vibrant and energetic staging, he reveals the disparate range of people who live in the community, and highlights the contradictions that lie at the heart of rural living.

Jemima Robinson’s colourful set immediately tells us we are in the present day. A table with a sign saying ‘charity book sale’ might have come from any era, but a red telephone box that is now a defibrillator, a sign saying ‘20 is plenty’ and a bin proclaiming ‘dog waste only’ (in which Adina dumps her wedding veil when she ditches the idea of marrying Belcore) tell us we are very much in the here and now. Even the final collection times on the pillar box look ungenerous, suggesting just how much the postal service has gone downhill in recent years.       

The setting could be any one of a number of beautiful Cotswolds villages such as Bibury, Bourton-on-the-Water or Lower or Upper Slaughter, but everything implies that the people are so aware of how perfect their neighbourhood is that it actually makes it imperfect. A newspaper headline appearing on the backcloth stating ‘Green, pleasant and now protected’ reveals the element of self-consciousness that is at play, while another in front of the stage stating ‘The differences between the haves and have nots’ suggests everything is not as idyllic as it seems. Jigsaw pieces revealing birds, squirrels and roadsigns hang from the ceiling and come together to create a backdrop to the stage, suggesting that modern village life is a puzzle to be solved. 

The production is dynamic from the start as the Prelude introduces us to a range of villagers, with every chorus member being handed a distinct character. Two men of leisure enjoy a picnic, while a wellbeing instructor leads the entire village in a pilates session and morning meditation. Young and old rub shoulders with clergy and manual labourers, and they all remain on stage for a high proportion of the opera. For example, during ‘Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera’ they reveal how nothing is private in such a close knit community as everyone spies on Adina and Nemorino by hiding behind copies of ‘Country Life’. Two elderly women lift their shopping trolleys like weights after feeling revitalised by Dulcamara’s ‘miracle cure’. They also take centre stage in the dancing at Adina and Belcore’s wedding party, while the teenagers there are more likely to end up drunk in a wheelie bin! 

“In a vibrant and energetic staging, he reveals the disparate range of people who live in the community…”

L'elisir d'amore

L’elisir d’amore (Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis)

Adina is not a landowner, but a landowner’s daughter, which is presumably designed to downplay the fact that her original position would not hold as much sway in this setting as she would not be employing all of the villagers we see as she would farm labourers in the original. It does not matter though, as when she tells everyone to get back to work one can picture how she possesses the confidence, if not the strict authority, to utter such an instruction. 

Nemorino is a postman whose first entrance is indicated by a miniature  delivery van coming over the hill, and Belcore becomes an airman. While in the original the book on Tristan and Isolde would be one that presented the legend, here Adina reads a publication entitled ‘Penetrating Wagner’s Ring’. This is a joke based on Longborough’s own love affair with Wagner, but it makes sense because any book that penetrated Wagner’s Ring that deeply would have to talk about Tristan und Isolde as well! 

The attention to detail throughout is staggering as Nemorino manages to obtain Adina’s book for himself by wresting it from the crowd and giving them a parcel instead. They unwrap it to reveal a model plane kit that, when constructed, flies across the stage to herald Belcore’s arrival. Dulcamara’s cart is a stall packed with smoothies and lotions that would not look out of place at any contemporary craft fair. Even the branding is convincing as it proclaims ‘Elixir’, with the second ‘i’ replaced by a plant sign, and the slogan ‘nourish to flourish’. All of the villagers pay him using contactless, which as much as anything brings slickness to the routines in which they queue up to do so as there is no fumbling around for money.  

Alice Farnham elicits an extremely smooth and accomplished sound from the Longborough Festival Orchestra. Making his Longborough debut, Thando Mjandana, with his highly pleasing tenor, possesses both the innocence to make us feel for Nemorino and the sharpness to make his interactions with the other characters entertaining. Jennifer Witton, who played Micaëla here last year, has real presence as Adina as, with her strong soprano, she reveals both the character’s expectancy and vulnerability without pushing either trait to extremes. Emyr Wyn Jones, who sang Leporello here in 2019, takes the stage by storm as Dulcamara. His powerful and assertive bass-baritone is utilised to excellent effect, and his commanding presence helps us to enjoy the character as a loveable rogue, even though we are never allowed to forget the serious consequences of deceit.

The only regret with Haegee Lee’s Giannetta is that Donizetti did not write the character a bigger part, although this production gives her plenty to do, while Arthur Bruce is a notably multifaceted Belcore. He captures the character’s confidence, yet reminds us that, for all of his arrogance, he is still terribly hard done by as he is jilted on his wedding day. For all of the joyousness that this production exudes, it never ceases to remind us that there is a dark side to everything, including seemingly innocuous village life. This is brought into sharp focus at the end when, amidst the general celebrations, Belcore is placed centre stage, drowning his sorrows by drinking Bordeaux and being the only person present to accept that his drink is really nothing more than that.      

• Longborough Festival Opera’s 2023 season continues until 3 August. For details of all of its productions and tickets visit its website.

• In 2024 Longborough Festival Opera presents Der Ring des Nibelungen in three complete cycles alongside La bohème. For dates and booking details visit this page.

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L’elisir d’amore review – Longborough Festival Opera brings Donizetti’s classic closer to home