Wednesday 17 July 2013

L'elisir d'amore

Sarah Tynan (credit: Chris Gloag)
Sarah Tynan (credit: Chris Gloag)
Opera Holland Park continued its season with a new production of Donizetti's comedy L'elisir d'amore with Sarah Tynan making her Opera Holland Park debut and Geoffrey Dolton bravely standing in at the last minute as Dulcamara. Pia Furtado and Leslie Travers gave us a production set in the recent 20th century and full of sun flowers. 

Opera Holland Park's new production of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore opened on 16 July 2013 with Sarah Tynan, Aldo di Tor, George von Bergen, Geoffrey Dolton and Rosalind Coad, directed by Pia Furtado, designed by Leslie Travers and conducted by Stephen Higgins with the City of London Sinfonia.

With most productions of L'elisir d'amore, whatever the period setting, the most interesting question is the mode of transport being used by Dulcamara, whether it be a cart, a Fiat Topolino or even a balloon. But in Pia Furtado's production Dulcamara doesn't arrive at all, he's on stage at the beginning, and the transport is too in the form of a pair of lorries.

The production is set roughly in the present (the women's costumes were rather 1970's inspired but the men's seemed to be modern takes on the 1950's). Leslie Travers' set consisted of a huge warehouse structure in front of Holland Park House, housing a business growing and selling sun flowers. Two lorries were parked with their rear and sides covered in huge advertising for the company, with pictures of Adina (Sarah Tynan) amidst a field of sunflowers.

As the opening notes of the overture drifted from the pit, we saw Belcore (George von Bergen) and his troops chasing a drifter. This drifter hid in the warehouse and proceeded to start stealing things, searching for something to eat and drink. When the chorus entered, he hid, but then re-appeared when Adina was entertaining the chorus by reading from her story about Tristan and Isolde. The drifter seemed to be gathering anything and everything he could, including mixing a peculiar 'drink' from anything he could find in the warehouse (including apparently diesel). He then hid in the back of one of the lorries. It became gradually apparent that this was Dulcamara and, when he did make his grand entrance, it was simply to open the rear doors of the lorry and appear, now dressed in the multi-coloured bits and pieces he has stolen and with an impressive array of pseudo scientific equipment. It was never quite clear exactly who Dulcamara was, except a silver tongued drifter/con-man, and he looked more like a refugee from Catweazle.

Furtado had one other innovation, George von Bergen's Belcore was no longer a recruiting sergeant, but simply a member of the local regiment who was keen on Sarah Tynan's Adina.

Furtado's production, though basically naturalistic, had a strongly stylised element to the movement, including the way the chorus moved, which rather suited the piece. There was a strong vein of very funny physical comedy running through the evening, but that was not for its own sake. During Belcore's aria extolling the virtues of the martial life to Nemorino, the rear doors to one of the lorries opened to reveal his troop having sex with the local girls.

And for all the changes, Furtado and Travers gave us a piece with heart which brought out both the comedy and the human pathos, in fact there were moments which were quite dark. The soldiers' treatment of Nemorino (Aldo di Toro) during the act 1 finale, though stylised and slow motion, was definitely disturbing with their cruel tauntings and beatings. This was a comedy which, like all good comedies, edged on tragedy; the final scene between Adina and Nemorino was definitely touch and go as to whether we got a happy ending.

Central to all this was Aldo di Toro's Nemorino. The Australian tenor is a great favourite at Opera Holland Park and has turned in some very fine performances there in roles such as Edgardo (Lucia di Lammermoor) and Rodolfo (La Boheme). He has a fine Italianate tone, a strong, bright voice which is able to negotiate the role's fioriture with great credit, the ability to spin a very fine line and clearly has a gift for comedy. His Nemorino was very much a sad clown, a charming naif and very funny; physical comedy combined with a nice sense of Donizetti's vocal line. Like all the best comedians, di Toro made you laugh whilst making you feel sorry for him. And his ability to spin and control Donizetti's vocal lines, such as in Una furtiva lagrima, was a pleasure to listen to. Granted some of his fioriture were perhaps a little smudged, but this was a very finely sung account.

The problem with the role of Nemorino, particularly in productions taking place in the present or recent past, is that if Nemorino really believes in Dulcamara then inevitably Nemorino comes over as an idiot and you wonder why Adina is interested in him. Some of the more arcane 20th century settings have been precisely to come up with a locale which makes this work. By making Dulcamara a chancer and con-man, Furtado made it (a little) more believable that Nemorino would fall for Dulcamara's schtick.

Geoffrey Dolton took over the role of Dulcamara at two week's notice owing to illness. He does not have the physicque du role, his Dulcamara wasn't the typical showman but a weasel of a man who was clearly a clever chancer. Nor does Dolton have a big buffo bass voice. Instead he and Furtado remade Dulcamara in Dolton's own image and gave us a mesmerising performance. It was a little less show-stopping and more part of the ensemble than usual, but that is certainly no bad thing. (Dulcamara is one of those parts, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, which are not especially large much which can dominate the show). Dolton didn't run away with the show, instead he created a hilarious, rather unlikable character who was very much part of the ensemble. it made for a far better balance performance. Dolton's voice might not be a big, buffo one but he had impressive command of Donizetti's fioriture. Dulcamara is a great character role and Dolton gave us a superbly memorable character.

I saw Sarah Tynan playing Adina in English in ENO's production set in mid-western USA and it was a pleasure to encounter her again in the role in Italian and in a far more sympathetic production.  Her Adina wasn't a bitch, she was all cool, soignee charm. Tynan looked good in Travers costumes for her, and sang with great poise and a superb sense of line. Her tone was very elegant, like a cool stream of water, and she clearly charmed everyone on stage. Tynan was very much the straight woman of the comedy, but she was very much part of the ensemble and contributed greatly. Her voice is not the most Italianate, but it is ravishing and she is always an intelligent pleasure to listen to. The scene between her and di Toro at the end was profoundly touching and definitely edged the comedy into far more serious territory.

George von Bergen was a delight as the pompous Belcore, very full of himself and completely unaware how funny he was, in charge of a troop of soldiers whose movements verged on the Ministry of Silly Walks. Where I had a problem is that von Bergen's characterful, vibrato-laden voice did not seem to have the flexibility and ping required for the part. His singing, though entirely creditable, did not quite match his physical presence; but that was probably just first night teething problems.

Rosalind Coad, who is still at the Royal Academy of Music studying with Lillian Watson, made a strong impact as Gianetta. Clear of voice and with a memorable stage presence, I hope to see a lot more of Rosalind Coad.

The effect of Leslie Travers warehouse set, with its rear wall and partial roof, was to surround the Opera Holland Park stage with a sound shell. More designers ought to be encouraged to do this. It had a transformative effect on the chorus, I have never heard them sound so crisp, bright and together. It was a brilliant performance, aided perhaps by the fact that they were clearly having fun on stage. Whatever you might think of some of the details of Pia Furtado's production, she is clearly adept at getting superb ensemble performances from her cast.

On a hot evening, the opening notes of the overture sounded a little distrait, but the City of London Sinfonia soon picked up and were on their usual fine form.

In the pit, Steven Higgins was in firm control. This was a performance where the ensemble between stage and pit was superb throughout, quite a feat in Opera Holland Park's wide open auditorium. But Higgins was no martinet, crisply in charge he might have been but his tempi flowed nicely and he allowed plenty of space for the singers' rubatos.

Leslie Travers had clearly been given a reasonable costume budget and it showed. When the ensemble was on stage in act two, in their party clothes, it looked colourfully ravishing, and Sarah Tynan had the luxury of three different stylish outfits.

Some productions update L'elisir d'amore and it niggles, you think why do that? Furtado's production however never grated, instead she and the cast gave us an intelligently thought out comedy with heart.

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