wed 16/04/2014

The Elixir of Love, English National Opera | Opera reviews, news & interviews

The Elixir of Love, English National Opera

Donizetti's comedy glows with new humour in this Midwestern translation

'An elixir with a kick, sir': Adina (Sarah Tynan) always gets her man (Ben Johnson)Tristram Kenton

“An elixir with a kick, sir, one that really packs a punch”, sings Adina in Jonathan Miller’s Midwestern The Elixir of Love, and she couldn’t be more right. A night spent among the floral prints, perky ponytails and pastel wipe-down surfaces of this production is like being battered around the head with a bouquet of roses wielded by Doris Day. Frame the encounter in a Hopper-inspired set from which all traces of menace have been expunged – no nighthawks dare lurk in bustling Adina’s Diner – and you have the perfect operatic antidote (more effective than any of Dulcamara’s potions) to the onset of the winter blues.

There have been renewed mutterings and grumblings of late about revisiting ENO’s strict opera in English policy, but no one seeing this Elixir could deny the electricity generated when vernacular translation, production and music come together so completely. Much of this success is down to Kelley Rourke’s slick libretto that plays fast and (foot) loose with Felice Romani’s original. Forget Italy, this is small-town, dustbowl America, where the accents are as brashly acrylic as the waitresses’ nails and the smiles are broader – and no less cloudless – than the horizon.

Nemorino (Ben Johnson) becomes a grubby mechanic, pining for the love of his diner-owning boss Adina (a returning Sarah Tynan), while Belcore (Benedict Nelson) is a swaggering GI But it’s Dr Dulcamara (Andrew Shore) who really steals the show as the convertible-driving, Panama-hat-wearing conman who so charmingly exploits the townsfolk. His “Udite, udite” offers a particularly tongue-twisting showcase of Rourke’s skill and surely manages to rhyme “hysteria” and “posterior” at one point, and that’s before we get to his karaoke Barcarolle with Adina.

elixir1resThe production pulses with the detail and character of Miller at his best, with some lovely moments of chorus interplay (a series of loo-flushing solos in Gianetta’s “Saria possibile”, women failing rather spectacularly to share in Adina’s happy ending). The gorgeous simplicity of Isabella Bywater’s revolving set anchors everything, proving itself unexpectedly flexible across the two acts.

Returning for this revival, Sarah Tynan is a bewitching, coquettish Adina (pictured right), narrating her ballad of Isolde from a gossip magazine and making a microphone from a mop handle. Wiggling and romping her way through the part with the most successful American accent of the evening, her light voice sits well within the jazzed-up, music-theatre clarity of the production, flirting with the trickier coloratura passages with the same effortless skill as with Nemorino. Faultless and utterly engaging, if she wasn’t vocally quite matched by either of her leading men it almost didn’t matter.

Proving himself capable of filling the Coliseum stage with his personality, Ben Johnson (making his major-role debut at ENO) delighted the audience with his deftly characterised Nemorino, all quirky gestures and beaten-down optimism.

elixir2resHis voice still feels on the light side for so large a space, however, and while things were solid enough in the middle of the register there were a distinct lack of big money notes (certainly none added), losing some of the youthfulness and heroics that we might more conventionally expect. Nelson’s Belcore (pictured above) felt stronger, more lived-in vocally, and the balance of his charming Sergeant and Johnson’s grumpily sincere Nemorino worked well.

There were just a couple of flies in the diner’s coffee however; the chorus (particularly the ladies) were underpowered and rather scrappy, and some of Donizetti’s melodies did suffer under the weight of Rourke’s virtuosic, patter-based text. While the Prelude saw some seriously sexy canoodling from flutes and woodwind, the brass lacked glitz, and balance between Rory Macdonald’s pit and the stage never quite settled.

But these are practical details that will sort themselves out over the remaining performances of the run, and the many revivals doubtless still to come. Miller has definitely done it again with this Elixir which seems destined to join the likes of his Mikado, Mafia Rigoletto and even his latest Bohème in regular and beloved ENO circulation.

The night feels like being battered around the head with a bouquet of roses wielded by Doris Day

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