Gaetano Donizetti - L'Elisir d'Amore
NI Opera, 2013
David Brophy, Oliver Mears, Anna Patalong, John Molloy, Anthony Flaum, James McOran-Campbell, Sarah Reddin
Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey - 27 September 2013
If there were some concerns that NI Opera's 2013-14 season looked a little thin and reliant on co-productions that would be less specific to the province (we've been spoilt, I know), there was at least a sense that there was something in the programme for everyone. The forthcoming production of Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest notwithstanding, it could however also be said to lack the ambition of the first two inaugural seasons of the newly formed opera company. Certainly Donizetti's comedy L'Elisir d'Amore, sung in English, would hardly appear to be the most challenging choice for a season opener, but it did prove to be a popular and accessible one and perhaps that's just as important a factor in this era of continued budget cuts to the arts.
Popularity however need not necessarily mean any compromise in the high standards that we have come to expect from NI Opera. L'Elisir d'Amore might not break any new ground for the company, but with a cast as adept in comedy acting as they were agile in their singing, this was as delightful an entertainment as it ought to be. It isn't really necessary to have a concept with an opera like Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, but it helps if the approach is consistent, relatable and, most importantly, it's at least funny. Oliver Mears' clever and considered production not only met those requirements, it may even have offered something a little extra to think about in these times when money concerns are indeed foremost in most people's minds.
Oliver Mears' setting the opera in an 1970's college classroom might be nothing more than an indulgence of nostalgia, so it might be reading a bit too much into it to connect Donizetti's lighthearted play on the Tristan and Isolde legend with the earlier production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman set in the same era. There is a consistency in the approach however and it does at least manage to bring the subject back down to something that everyone in the audience can relate to. Reading anything more than that into the settings of these productions is perhaps fanciful, but if so inclined, you could make a connection between The Flying Dutchman and the decline in traditional industries like shipbuilding during the Thatcher era, but can make L'Elisir d'Amore as a critique on Thatcherism in the same way?
Thankfully, Oliver Mears doesn't over-stretch the material and its comedy to fit any such dubious concept, but that doesn't mean that I can't. Just for fun. There's no doubt that the working class Nemorino becomes much more empowered when he partakes of the elixir, which in a way is investing in the enterprise of Doctor Dulcamara. He certainly receives a handsome return on his investment with regards to his middle-class aspiration to marry above his class, but it's still something of a high risk investment. The elixir on the other hand may in this case be nothing more than a splash of Brut or Old Spice for all the lasting impact it has on Adina's feelings for him, but the attraction of money in this Thatcherist era shouldn't be underestimated, particularly when Nemorino inherits great wealth from his recently deceased uncle.
With the dodgy Dulcamara slipping into a very broad Irish brogue on occasion, you could look further and see an early indication of the Celtic Tiger in this, which does suggest that the elixir business is built on some very shaky foundations indeed. It sounds plausible enough then, or at least the excellent comic acting of John Molloy in the role makes the proposition seem most persuasive. Or if not made plausible, at least made very funny and relatable to the audience. Throw in a few comments in the adapted translation that have Adina calling Nemorino an "eejit", and you're very much speaking about to the audience in their own language about a universal subject.
Putting such fanciful interpretations aside, the key to the work lies in giving due attention to that universal question of love. Those romantic sentiments also work very much more for a modern audience here by portraying the impossibility of a relationship between a peasant and a wealthy land-owner as the classroom crush of a college pupil for a sexy teacher well out of his league. With her hair in bun and wearing glasses only to be "revealed" in a much more glamorous light, Anna Patalong fits the bill rather well (and, having previously seen Ms Patalong in a maid outfit as Serpetta in this summer's Buxton production of Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera, I think I might be developing a bit of a crush there myself).
The clever set design then works well on a practical level, creating a classroom out of the chorus, setting figures and characters out in their marvellously recreated seventies fashions (by costume designer Ilona Karas). On an operational level too there were plenty of little comic touches such as the CND poster on the wall being ripped down by Sgt. Belcore when the soldiers arrive, in Dr. Dulcamara's mobile science laboratory, and generally in the comic interplay between the characters. The gym setting for Act II with the chorus as netball players is also brilliantly put together and hugely entertaining.
That all makes NI Opera's L'Elisir d'Amore sound like a nice light piece of fluff, but there are of course considerable musical and singing challenges in the work. The musical side of things was well catered for by the Ulster Orchestra led by conductor David Brophy. There wasn't always a great feel for Donizetti's sometimes rather conventional arrangements and the reduced orchestra couldn't consequently carry them off with sweeping flourishes, but between them they found the appropriate the lightness of touch required for the work, the size of the venue and worked well with the singing and timing of the performers.
The real challenges and character of the work however are to be found in the singing and here the casting and performances were outstanding. Anna Patalong's darkly rich soprano (and appearance) put one in mind of Anna Netrebko on occasion, but she tackled the role of Adina and all its high notes with great ability, relish and considerable character. The ever-reliable John Molloy, as noted earlier also made his role very much his own, while Anthony Flaum's Nemorino brought a new meaning to the term "vocal gymnastics" by singing some pieces while skipping and doing push-ups in Act II. Top of the class!