ENO revives Jonathan Miller’s production of The Elixir of Love

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Donizetti, The Elixir of Love: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera, conducted by Rory Macdonald. London Coliseum,London, 15.9.2011. (JPr)

Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love has a very thin plot – if ‘plot’ is not too serious a word for what we seen happen – basically is rom-com, albeit a bel canto one. There is a ‘love triangle’ of sorts between the flighty Adina, her love-sick admirer, the hapless Nemorino, and a womanising soldier, Belcore. There is a recounting of the effects of Isolde’s love potion on Tristan and Nemorino wants some of it for himself to woo Adina. He is ‘transformed’ by the charlatan Dulcamara’s spurious ‘cure-all’ and there remains something timeless about the idea that wealth is sexy (otherwise how would so many ugly rich men attract the beautiful women they are often with?). The only hint of a dark side to its story is that Nemorino is prepared to enlist and die in battle when he is strapped for cash. It is also strange how Adina eventually warms to him, having been so fickle with her affections for most of the opera.

Anyway Jonathan Miller’s staging of The Elixir of Love returns and, as would be expected, it has changed little from when it premiered. Although Elaine Tyler-Hall was listed as the ‘Revival Director’ it is probable Miller oversaw the final rehearsals himself as he was in the audience and took a curtain call. As you would expect from this veteran opera director there was great attention to small details amongst the principals and chorus acting the townsfolk and soldiers. The best of all moments – for a lover of toilet humour like me – is when the news spreads amongst the girls that the seemingly hapless Nemorino is now very wealthy. At this point they are queuing for the outside toilet at the ever present ‘Adina’s Diner’ with their comments punctuated by a flushing sound and with one of their number coming out with her skirt tucked in her underwear.

I was more appreciative of Isabella Bywater’s impressive three-dimensional set for the 1960’s diner on a dusty roadside than before. As a backdrop there is a mid-West cyclorama of cornfields and eerily static cows, as if time has stood still in this part of America as we all know it can. (The current Route 66 programme on ITV with Billy Connolly is definitely showing us to be true.) The vintage motorbike and Dulcamara’s splendid Cadillac, along with the often colourful – and very appropriate – costumes, all add to the atmosphere this staging creates on its revival.

I think the comedy seemed a little bit broader this time and most still centres on Andrew Shore’s droll Dulcamara as the archetypal ‘snake oil salesman’. In voice and performance, he is part Stubby Kaye as Nicely-Nicely Johnson from Guys and Dolls and strangely enough reminded me most of Ronnie Barker, especially with all his patter as he describes his medicine’s remarkable powers. (It is a credit to Andrew Shore’s wonderful diction at this point that ENO turn off their English surtitles, one of his best lines is undoubtedly ‘If you reek of halitosis, then have a couple of doses’.) There was more humorous ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ with his Act II delightful double entendre at the start of Act II as he announces his song at the wedding party with ‘I’ve got a little ditty’!

Kelley Rourke’s Americanised translation also came over more naturally than it did last year but there is still too wide of a variety of accents to make it all go smoothly. Nemorino sings with a well-schooled British accent with just an occasional ‘de, dat or dose’, Adina has a twang when speaking but intermittently when singing, whilst Belcore comes straight out of Oklahoma and I expected him to be seeking ‘The Surrey With A Fringe On Top’ at any moment.

Ben Johnson (Nemorino) sings his first major role for ENO; his is a small-scale, pliant and lyrical voice and he does a good job as the mechanic he has to portray. However, he failed to convince me that this is the correct repertoire for him, despite a wonderfully nuanced romanza ‘I saw a tear fall silently’ (as here in translation). Characterwise in Jonathan Miller’s view Nemorino is even more dopey than usual and it is even less clear what Adina sees in him. Sarah Tynan returns in this blond-bombshell role and although she is supposed to have a bit of Marilyn Monroe about her, she is more cold and brassy than voluptuous. She has an agile, pure sound and her essentially light soprano matches her Nemorino well. Benedict Nelson was the suitably swaggering, cocksure, Elvis-like army sergeant, Belcore – here, as mentioned earlier, a Howard Keel sound-alike.

Returning to the ENO is the young British conductor Rory Macdonald and after a rather ponderous sounding overture his was a well-paced, slightly routine, though lively, account of the lightweight score. The always reliable ENO orchestra seemed to respond well to him and overall it was the perfect accompaniment for his enthusiastic principal singers and the lively chorus.

A few days after the Royal Opera’s success with the challenging Il trittico, the English National Opera were also beginning their new season here but in comparison it was with more of a whimper than a bang. Not that I didn’t enjoy myself; I did more so than when I saw this production when it was first put on at the London Coliseum about 18 months ago. ENO should rank second as an opera company in the UK but sometimes it has a rather provincial feel about it. Most likely there are two genuine reasons here: lack of money and the over-used argument that more established singers will not learn roles in English. The former problem cannot be resolved easily but the second one should not affect conductors who are available – and honestly – there cannot be that much work around to make singers too choosy in what they do.

Jim Pritchard