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L’elisir d’amore

by on 3 August 2022

Can’t Buy You Love

L’elisir d’amore

by Gaetano Donizetti, libretto by Felice Romani, after Eugene Scribe

West Green House Opera, Hartley Wintney until 31st July   

Review by Mark Aspen

The Theatre on the Lake goes to sea!  Director Victoria Newlyn has an inspired self-referential idea to take the sleepy Italian village in L’elisir d’amore and transform it to the cruise ship Il Villaggio whilst taking the setting from two hundred years ago to the second half of the Twentieth Century.

The lake in the charming fragrant gardens of West Green House widens in the imagination of designer Adrian Linford to become the Med, while the “floating” stage, which post-pandemic has become the idiosyncratic image of West Green Opera, grows a prow and a funnel as the white-painted love-boat.  The horizons of the acting space have widened too, semaphore signallers send messages from the audience pavilions along the lake margins, (sorry, seashore), and the quack apothecary, Dr. Dulcamara arrives in a dingy rowed across the lake … (er, in the ship’s tender across the breakers).  Didn’t they use to call these, appropriately, bumboats? 

Donizetti and his librettist Romani would surely relish this concept, which is totally in keeping with the sunny al fresco feel of the work and its guileless simplicity.  Flashes of musical sunlight reflect the many highlights of the piece, such as the carnivalesque party at the end of Act One, with the fourteen-strong enthusiastic chorus, who are clearly enjoying themselves as the crew, colourfully clad in eclectic array of costumes, ship’s officers, cleaners, stewards, entertainers; the latter sporting clown trousers and o.t.t. wigs.

This however has all been foreseen in the musical prelude that forms the overture to the work. A fluttering flute, a slow reflection, a military flourish and off to the full works.  It’s all the story in three manic minutes.  Conductor, Matthew Kofi Waldren, at a cracking pace, sets the mood of the opera, an opera which doesn’t take itself too seriously … and doesn’t have to, for Donizetti described his opera buffa, as a melodramma giocoso (joyous melodrama).  The twenty-six musicians are on stage, as the ship’s orchestra in the concert salon of Il Villaggio, underlining the joy or the melodrama as the case may be.

Is the plot a picaresque tale of the mountebank Dulcamara, flogging the elixir of love of the opera’s title, together with all his other dubious panaceas, to a gullible clientele … or is it the gentle story of Nemorino’s unrequited love for Adina, redeemed by fate?   Well, it is both, and Newlyn’s retelling brilliantly balances the dodgy and the endearing.

Adina is now Il Villaggio’s cruise director, the snappy smart executive to whom all the ship’s company defer.   As Adina, the tall, slim and statuesque Samantha Clarke references a young Gina Lollobrigida when she first appears in a citrus pencil skirt.  She gets all the admiring sideways glances from the male members of the crew, but none more so than from the doe-eyed besotted Nemorino, the ship’s odd-job man.   John Colyn Gyeantey is perfect in this role, for a start his statue is the antithesis of Clarke’s.  He looks up to her in more ways than one.  It is of course a well-worn piece of visual comedy (think Laurel and Hardy) but it always works. 

Adina and Nemorino are more than different in looks, their cultures and intellectual levels are different.   So when Adina announces that the ship’s cinema is to screen the mediaeval epic, Tristan and Isolde, explaining the plot to her staff, Nemorino’s ears prick up at the story of Tristan giving a love-potion to Isolde, and a highly effective one at that. 

Australian-British soprano, Samantha Clarke, winner the Grange International Festival, has a voice worthy of its award-winning success, smooth, stylish and scintillating.  At first it almost seems at odds with the aloof Adina’s hard-edged character, but Adina has quite an emotional journey as the supercilious femme-fatale twisting her suitors around her little finger, to the love-smitten demure maiden at the plot’s conclusion.

Similarly, John-Colyn Gyeantey’s Nemorino transforms from Adina’s persistent yet mesmerised poodle, albeit one that the audience found quite endearing, to the confident and charming magnet for the ladies.  Such, is the effect, he thinks, of the eponymous elixir, but possibly newly inherited wealth could be a stronger factor.  Gyeantey may look the part, and can act the part, but my how he can sing.  His worshiping “Quanto è bella, Quanto è cara ” (How beautiful she is, how lovely) speaks a trembling and hesitant admiration.  He then takes Nemorino through a roller coaster of emotions despair, anger, elation, jealousy, but it is Nemorino’s famous romanza at the opera’s denouement, “Una furtiva lagrima negli occhi suoi spuntò…” (A furtive tear welled up in her eyes …) that has the audience totally captivated.  A solo bassoon introduces the romanza, but Gyeantey’s beautiful and touching singing, expressive of intimacy, profundity and sensibility had everyone transfixed.  As he enters an a Capella section and pizzicato strings, reminiscent of teardrops fade away, you could hear the proverbial pin drop.  All this under Sarah Bath’s fluttering glitter-ball lighting.  

Sergeant Belcore makes quite an entrance to Donizetti’s cod military march, dressed in a gaudy luminescent blue jacket, blowing kisses.  He is on leave and looking for a holiday romance or a bit on the side.  He wastes no time storming the redoubt that is Adina.  Bold brash belligerent Belcore out-guns Nemorino in all (mostly all) respects.  Nemorino can only look despairingly on from the lower “deck” of Il Villaggio.  Tall and imposing as Belcore, (even more so later in his black plumed Italian army helmet) Australian baritone Nicholas Lester seems to have cornered the market in cavalier anti-heroes.  (Last year he was the eponymous Eugene in West Green’s Eugene Onegin.)   Lester pulls out the comedy from Belcore’s bravado, so that the blustering bully becomes more pliable and pragmatic, without losing the vigour of his rich baritone.  Belcore’s remarkably quick marriage proposal is uncharacteristically slick, “Come Paride vezzoso porse il pomo alla più bella” (Just as Paris gave the apple to the most beautiful), but it is quite clear it is a shallow chat up line, in spite of Lester’s superb rendering musically.

On the phoney front thought Belcore is well upstaged by Dulcamara.  When he is first rowed in, we know his intention is for a quick getaway too.  In a trench coat and with a suitcase full of bottles and an attaché case of leaflets, he is straight in for the kill.  “Udite, udite, o rustici, attenti non fiatate” (Listen, listen, rustic, pay attention: don’t even breathe), for his panacea cures everything from bedbugs to grief.  His hyperbole takes him, one feels, to infinity and beyond.  His patter song advertising his cures is delivered by bass-baritone Richard Walshe, in this role, without a falter, and at the breakneck speed that is as it should be.  Walshe’s characterisation is more of the fly-by-night salesman than the usual bluff showman. 

However, when, in Act Two, Dulcamara hears there is a party going on he decides to stay, if only to finish the left-overs.  The chorus again raid the dressing-up box and dance a lively conga and calls for songs.  Dulcamara obliges with a barcarolle (though not in triple-time), a risqué tale about a gondola girl and a senator, and Adina joins in.  Clarke’s sparkling flow of tumbling notes above Walshe’s renewed patter singing makes for a notably bravura duet.  

Whilst everyone on board buys from Dr Dulcamara, most do so sceptically, on an “I’ll give it a try” basis.   However, poor Nemorino is not the sharpest tool in the toolbox, and falls for the sales pitch, hook, line and sinker.  When he asks Dulcamara for Tristan’s love potion, the philtre he gets is claret, but worse, he does not get the idea that you give the object of your desire the aphrodisiac, not drink it yourself.   He even signs up to the army to get more dosh to pay for more.

Fate comes to his rescue.  Giannetta, the cruise ship’s Head of Housekeeping, an avid snapshot photographer and a practiced rumourmonger, gets the news that Nemorino has inherited an estate from a rich uncle.  Armenian soprano Tereza Gevorgyan makes a busy-bee busybody Gianetta, but singing beautifully and with cool aplomb.  As the gossip gets round, the superlatives are built up, possibilissimo to probabilissimo to verissimo

When, suddenly, all the women find him irresistible, Adina is filled with jealousy … but is she simply jealous of losing her own hold on Nemorino?  Then again, she is moved by Nemorino joining the army (“a dangerous business”) to try to win him.  The change is illustrated by two duets.  In the beginning, Nemorino sings that he is like a stream irresistibly drawn to the sea, whereas Adina sings that she is like the breeze blowing to whatever takes her fancy.  But eventually, in response to Nemorino’s Una furtiva lagrima, she admits “ … tu mi sei caro, e t’amo”  (You are dear to me and I love you).  Wow, quite a change of heart, but it is expressed in two beautiful jewels of opera, sung with passion and with skill.

Incidentally, Una furtiva lagrima was the favourite aria of both Caruso and Pavarotti, so Gyeantey is in good company, for he sings it with ardour.  Clarke sings with equal fervour in as Adina declares “ti giuro eterno amor” (to you I swear eternal love). 

Cynics might query the effectiveness of the love-potion.  Is it Dulcamara’s philtre?  Certainly not.  Is it the claret?  Possibly, alcohol always helps.  Or is it the lure of money?  Might that just be the aphrodisiac?  Probably.

However, Newlyn’s cruise steers clear of cynicism.  Belcore takes it on the chin.  He’s had his fun, and moves on to storm another amorous citadel.  Dulcamara is not a ravaging plunderer hid under a showman’s cloak, as he is usually depicted.  He is a slickly sham salesmen, has made a scudo or two, and sidles off.   No-one is badly hurt.  (Belcore and Dulcamara are really one of a kind.)  Nemorino is not portrayed as the usual lumpen fool, but as a closet poet with winning ways.  Adina likewise is not seen the usual sadistic siren, but as being a little too self-absorbed to be able to count her blessings.  

West Green Opera’s L’elisir d’amore has a light touch with a gorgeously unsophisticated take on the opera, in keeping with the summery setting of the gardens.  The undercurrents are unseen and the cruise ship Il Villaggio floats of the froth, frivolous and fun.  And hugely, wonderfully entertaining. 

Whoops, there’s the ship’s hooter, we’d better hurry and jump on board!

Mark Aspen, July 2022

Photography courtesy of West Green Opera

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