Monday 1 August 2022

Riotous comedy & humanity: Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore at West Green House Opera

Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Dulcamara (Richard Walshe) makes his entry - West Green House Opera
Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Dulcamara (Richard Walshe) makes his entry - West Green House Opera

Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore: Samantha Clarke, John-Colyn Gyeantey, Nicholas Lester, Richard Walshe, director: Victoria Newlyn, conductor: Matthew Kofi Waldren West Green House Opera
31 July 2022 (★★★★)

Victoria Newlyn's production filled the stage with a riot of colour and movement, but did not neglect the opera's humanity aided by some fine performances from this young cast

For its 2022 season, West Green House Opera has returned to the theatre on the lake, first created in 2021. With the stage on the island in the lake and the audience in pavilions on the lakeside, opera productions trade immediacy for a bit of magic in the setting (enhanced by the lighting of the garden when the sun sets). We caught the final performance of the season (31 July 2022), Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, directed by Victoria Newlyn and conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren [the partnership responsible for West Green's 2019 production of Rossini's La Cenerentola, see my review]. Samantha Clarke was Adina, John-Colyn Gyeantey as Nemorino, Nicholas Lester was Belcore, Richard Walshe was Dulcamara and Tereza Gevorgyan was Giannetta. Designs were by Adrian Linford with lighting by Sarah Bath and sound design by Gary Dixon.

The stage presented the audience with a long and relatively narrow acting area in front of the orchestra (seen side-on), and any set was restricted to the sides of the stage. Newlyn sensibly opted for a broad-brush, highly physical production style where the characters' emotions were reflected in physical actions (Newlyn's experience encompasses both directing and being movement director). The setting was modern, and the action had been transposed to a river cruiser, Il viaggio, where Adina (Samantha Clarke) was the cruise director. The chorus was made up of the various personnel of the ship, which gave designer Adrian Linford an excuse to go slightly mad with the costumes and meant that whenever Newlyn lined the chorus up along the stage for one of the ensemble numbers, the results were a visual riot.

Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Samantha Clarke, John-Colyn Gyeantry - West Green House Opera
Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Samantha Clarke, John-Colyn Gyeantry - West Green House Opera

It perhaps did not do to examine the logic of the plot's transposition too carefully, but the setting made highly effective use of available resources, including having Richard Walshe's Dulcamara arrive by boat and the landing jetty providing a separate area for John-Colyn Gyeantey's Nemorino, a visual device that was highly effective, allowing Gyeantey to be musically present yet separate.

The problem with any modern setting of the work is that it highlights the sheer cruelty of the plot (in fact, both of Donizetti's mature comedies, L'elisir d'Amore and Don Pasquale rely on an element of cruelty). Here, this element was mitigated by the sheer quality and appealing nature of the singing.

Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Nicholas Lester - West Green House Opera
Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Nicholas Lester - West Green House Opera

Samantha Clarke made an ideal Adina. Tall and striking-looking, she channelled any number of 20th-century Italian film stars. The brittleness of her cruise director persona was offset by the beauty and warmth of her singing. She brought a real sense of style to Donizetti's elaborate lines and this expressive quality carried even through the production's sound system. She managed to make Adina feel more unfeeling and self-absorbed rather than deliberately cruel, and you sensed a different person appearing as cracks appeared.

As Nemorino, John-Colyn Gyeantey brought a secure technique and a highly characterful voice to bear, singing with great style. He encompassed both the more showy elements of the vocal writing and the more intimate, so that Nemorino's hit number, 'Una furtiva lagrima' was a very touching moment. Gyeantey displayed a nice line in understated comedy, and managed to make Nemorino more naive than idiotic (which is a considerable achievement), whilst giving us plenty of musical pleasures. His and Clarke's relationship was believable and crackled with just the right sort of tension.

Nicholas Lester's Belcore was a sergeant in the Italian army looking for some R&R. He made his first entry wearing a remarkably lurid jacket. Throughout the opera the way the character was full of himself was reflected in Lester's physical movement; Lester and Newlyn created a whole repertoire for Belcore that complemented the character's vocal acrobatics. This was a consummate and delightful performance, lightening a character that can sometimes seem rather overbearing.

Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Samantha Clarke, Richard Walshe - West Green House Opera
Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore - Samantha Clarke, Richard Walshe - West Green House Opera

By contrast, Richard Walshe's Dulcamara was somewhat more seriously edgy than usual. Rather younger than most basses who sing the role, Walshe brought out the slick, salesman quality to Dulcamara rather than the buffo showman. Whilst his entry via a boat (deftly rowed by  an uncredited super) was suitably spectacular, his opening sales aria was slickly effective rather than strictly buffo, and throughout Walshe sang Dulcamara's music with something of an edge. This Dulcamara wasn't always particularly likeable  The result was to refocus things slightly, with Walshe's Dulcamara being one of an ensemble, rather than the sort of 'star turn' the role was made by such luminaries as Geraint Evans. 

As ever with this opera, Tereza Gevorgyan made you regret that the role of Giannetta was so small. The fourteen-strong chorus were clearly having great fun as the various personnel on the cruise, from ship's officers to housekeeping to clowns. Ensemble numbers could have any number of sub-plots going on, none of them drawing focus but contributing to the riotous nature of the evening. However, Newlyn was also able to calm things down, and focus on intimate moments too so that the long final scene between  Clarke and Gyeantey was played without any sense of gimmick.

Matthew Kofi Waldren successful controlled his forces and shaped the music whilst suffering under the necessity of being behind his singers. The orchestral sound was perhaps less successfully conveyed by the sound system than the voices, but the results always had a spring in their step and provided some engaging moments.

Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore at West Green House Opera
Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore at West Green House Opera

Newlyn's production succeeded in filling the stage with a riot of colour and action, whilst giving the principals space to convey the warmth and humanity that lies at the heart of this comedy.

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