A Jolly Opera Colourfully Staged and Well Sung

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore(sung in Italian with surtitles in English): Soloists, RNCM Opera Orchestra and Chorus / Francesco Pasqualetti (conductor), RNCM Theatre, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 8.12.2013 (RJF)

Day of Song (Lauren Fielder, Benjamin Lewis, Joanna Norman, Kang Wang with pianist Roderick Barrand) credit Paul Cliff
Day of Song (Lauren Fielder, Benjamin Lewis, Joanna Norman, Kang Wang with pianist Roderick Barrand) credit Paul Cliff

Adina, Bryony Williams.
Nemorino, Kang Wang
Belcore, Benjamin Lewis
Dulcamara, Thomas Hopkinson
Giannetta, Rosanna Harris

Director, Stefan Janski
Set and costume designer, Lara Booth
Lighting designer, Nick Ware


Donizetti hit the big time with his opera Anna Bolena, premiered in Milan in 1830. It was the first of his operas to travel abroad and launched him on a steep upward curve. It was followed by two other Tudor operas, Maria Stuarda, written in 1834 and Roberto Devereux in 1837. Between the first and last of that trio his greatest comic opera, L’elisir D’amore was premiered in 1832, and his most famous and melodic work, Lucia di Lamermoor three years later.

L’elisir d’amore is a comic reinterpretation of the Tristan and Isolde myth. Nemorino, a quiet, introverted penniless country boy secretly loves Adina, a local landowner who rebuffs him. Nemorino secretly buys a ‘love potion’ from a touring quack doctor, Dulcamara, in the hope of winning the love of Adina. She in turn has her head turned by the arrival of the debonair macho sergeant, Belcore, passing through town and determines to marry him that day. With no money left, Nemorino enlists in Belcore’s troop in order to pay for another bottle of the doctor’s elixir. It seems to work as the local girls fawn over him. They have learnt that he has inherited his uncle’s farm! Even Dulcamara becomes convinced his elixir is really the goods and in this production does a dance of delight! Needless to say Adina also sees the light, realises she loves Nemorino and falls into his arms as the quack doctor does a roaring trade of his various elixirs.

For me, having recently reviewed the Tudor Queens staged by Welsh National Opera, with scarcely a dash of colour in sight in costumes or set, the opening curtain of this production did not merely reveal a realistic pastoral setting in a meaningful manner, it raised my spirits in hope. Described as a pastoral comedy, Lara Booth’s setting is perfect. With Adina dressed in trousers, not unlike the Chanel 1920s look on the Cote D’Azur, and the country couples being indeterminately rustically attired it was a great start. Nemorino is soon into the thick of things vocally with the challenging Quanto e bella as he admires Adina from afar. Sung by Kang Wang, a 25 year old who is work towards the RNCMs International Artist Diploma following on from study under Joseph Ward OBE, at Queensland Conservatoir. His lyric tenor has beauty of tone allied to an edge that implies further growth in power. He brought elegance of phrase, good diction allied to vocal expressiveness to the role along with involved acting. These strengths were further in evidence in the even more renowned aria Una furtival lagrima for which he received very warm applause. In his time with the experienced staff at RNCM he will doubtless learn to ravish the ends of phrases a little more, perhaps also learning from listening to that non-parreil Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi on record.

I had already heard Bryony Williams, here singing Adina the soprano lead of the opera, when she won the prestigious Frederic Cox award and followed it up with the Kennedy award for the singing of Richard Strauss, a rare double. She studied in New Zealand before returning to her native Britain. Her warm even and expressive singing in act one was followed by some fine coloratura singing in act two where a secure silvery tone set me thinking of roles such as the Countess in The marriage of Figaro, famously sung by a recently retired New Zealand soprano. Bryony Williams’ phrasing, diction and legato were admirable in every way. Her vocal qualities and strengths, easy stage presence, indicate an exceptional talent is emerging onto the opera stage and fully in evidence in this performance.

Benjamin Lewis as Belcore manages to create an individual characterisation despite something of a chocolate soldier costume, his troop looking like a set of raw recruits and adding a touch of slapstick to the humour on occasions. He has already made his mark in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. His baritone was firm and with a little more growth of tone he will make a worthy career. Less a natural actor than colleagues, Thomas Hopkinson’s Dulcamara really needed more bass tone that will hopefully develop as his voice matures along with his age. His diction was excellent and he brought good vocal characterisation to the words.

As Giannetta, Rosanna Harris showed exceptional natural acting ability throughout and particularly in the scene with Belcore at the end of act one. Once into Giannetta’s brief arietta her vocal strengths were well in evidence. Also having an impact as an actress was Dr Dulcamara’s assistant, riding beside him on arrival in his most imaginative stall powered by a Vespa or the like. Safer than the live donkey that powered the cart when the RNCM last presented this opera in a production by Ryland Davies twenty or so years ago. The animal misbehaved a little, perhaps in the excitement of entering before an audience, causing the entering Nemorino to slip, a calamity saved by his fleet footwork. Co-incidentally the singer of the role of |Nemorino in that enjoyable production was also Chinese.

As well as the excellent orchestral accompaniment under Francesco Pasqualetti, I must also mention the pleasure of hearing a disciplined chorus of young voices, forty in all I guess. All committed in their acted involvement to a thoroughly enjoyable performance.

As always in recent years Stefan Janski was in charge of stage proceedings. I have run out of eulogies for his skills: it is more than merely having a chorus of forty move and act as if they believe in what they are doing. Likewise the soloists: it is in the manner he creates a cohesive stage action of any opera he touches – sp refreshing in an age of gimmicks, regie-theater and director concepts that often lead to stage pictures and happenings that would confuse any composer or librettist watching in the great opera retirement home in the sky. It is that Janski can bring young singers, soloists and chorus, to a level of involvement that makes watching a joy. Add a realistic but imaginative set, and use of lighting, designed by Nick Ware, and an evening of enjoyment is available.

There are further performances at the RNCM on 12th and 14th December at 19:30. If there are any tickets left, catch it while you can.

Robert J Farr.

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