The Elixir Of Love

Opera Review by Polly Hope

THE ELIXIR OF LOVE. Giacomo Donizetti

English National Opera. London

Two Donizetti operas in a month, and in the same house. Could be overkill. It is overkill. I love Donizetti's works. One should float with delight in the red plush seats of the Coliseum, but this little number is leaden and makes one think too much about one's tired knees.

So strange, as Jonathan Miller, the director, almost always has a delicious touch with such delicate diversions, and Elixir is a winner in this field. So much so I can't even remember a dull performance until this one.

Nothing wrong with setting the piece in a diner in the American Mid West circa 1950 could be just right. Bit of a pity as we've just had Stravinsky's Rake's Progress at the Royal Opera House using the same time frame and geography, the 40s and 50s are such fashionable times now. But there has to be a better reason, other than the one listed in the programme that the production was put together in Sweden, then popped up in New York before being sent back over here. Little wonder it all looks a bit shabby, but then a diner in the desert would, wouldn't it?

This diner is stuck in the middle of nowhere; there isn't another building in sight. It sits centre stage and spins around a bit from time to time so you can see the girls going in and out of the lavatory out back. Cheap joke.

I write too much about the setting, but it dominates. Miller keeps the performers trapped in the small interior space doing nothing, so the audience has to look at the set. Elixir is a story about gullible towns folk, not trapped waitresses in the middle of a field.

The singing is fineenough; English National Opera is hiring better singers these days. It does help a lot. John Tessier sings Nemorino beautifully and there are some very good songs for him in Elixir, especially the famous aria at the beginning of Act 2. Sarah Tynan's Adina is also fine; her voice scratches but in this part it is okay. However if she thinks that by wriggling her bum all the time she is being sexy she is making a big mistake. This is the most un-erotic pair of lovers I've seen in a long time. Lust is what the opera is about and there isn't a sniff of it anywhere, then the British are hopeless at being erotic. The more they wriggle and take their clothes off the less erotic they become. I suppose in the middle of the Arizona desert you can't be choosy…

One of the truly hilarious parts in all opera is that of Dr Dulcamara, the purveyor of snake oil and love potions. Andrew Shore is good, but too plausible, he looks just like a small hotel owner not a seller of dreams and magic. Too ordinary in his beige suit. He does sing well and most of his patter songs have an audible text.

The translation is cumbersome; spades tend to be agricultural implements. Sentences are too long to fit the musical phrases. Kelly Rourke can't hold a candle to Amanda Holden's perfect translation of Lucia. With such good enunciation as this company have the words rightly take front pew with the music. The translation needs reworking, even if Jonathan Miller commissioned it and loves it.

The music is gorgeous: it should be gorgeous, but not here. Pablos Heras-Casado is, I suppose, all right but nothing more. The word I started with is leaden and I meant the music. Every single bar played in exact tempo. It palls after an hour and is only saved by the coloratura decorations of the singers.

Goodness, I've made it all sound a frightful evening. It wasn't. Nobody could kill off the fun of Elixir. It is a glorious work, but come on Mr. Miller, wake it all up a bit, and Adina, do stop wriggling.

Polly Hope