Tuesday 4 July 2023

The Elixir of Love: Wild Arts brings Guido Martin-Brandis' enjoyably characterful production of Donizetti's opera to the Thaxted Festival

Donizetti: The Elixir of Love - Alex Jones - Wild Arts (Photo: Bonnie Britain)
Donizetti: The Elixir of Love - Alex Jones - Wild Arts (Photo: Bonnie Britain)

Donizetti: The Elixir of Love: Galina Averina, Thomas Elwin, James Atkinson, Alex Jones, director: Guido Martin-Brandis, conductor: Orlando Jopling; Wild Arts at the Thaxted Festival
Reviewed 2 July 2023

Stylish performances and an emphasis on character make this small-scale yet inventive production wonderfully engaging.

As well as presenting opera at its own festival at Layer Marney Tower, Wild Arts, artistic director Orlando Jopling, takes its annual Summer opera production on tour. This year, as well as four performances at Layer Marney, Guido Martin-Brandis' production of Donizetti's The Elixir of Love was being performed at the Thaxted Festival, Childerley Hall, Cambridgeshire, and Hever Castle, Kent. We caught the production in Thaxted at the Parish Church on Sunday 2 July 2023. Orlando Jopling conducted, with Galina Averina as Adina, Thomas Elwin as Nemorino, James Atkinson as Belcore and Alex Jones as Dulcamara, plus Sofia Kirwan-Baez, Rebecca Milford, Harry Jacques and Robert Garland in smaller roles. Designs were by Sophie Lincoln, and the work was sung in a new translation by Joseph Morris. The accompaniment was an instrumental ensemble of string quartet, double bass, accordion, clarinets and trumpet in a new orchestration by Hamish Brown.

Donizetti: The Elixir of Love - Galina Averina, Thomas Elwin - Wild Arts (Photo: Lucy J Toms)
Donizetti: The Elixir of Love - Galina Averina, Thomas Elwin - Wild Arts (Photo: Lucy J Toms)

This was a remarkably compact production, Sophie Lincoln's designs consisted simply of a blue-sky backdrop, a pair of deck chairs and some bunting, but there were evocative 1950s-period costumes and plenty of amusing 1950s-style props for Dulcamara's sales routine. This was one of those lovely productions that had no axe to grind, Martin-Brandis and Lincoln were not interested in showing how clever they were by fitting Donizetti and Felice Romani's opera into a new setting. Romani's libretto is perhaps one of the best that Donizetti ever set, and the opera stands on its own without help.

The 1950s period was simply an effective backdrop for an engaging and inventive production that was all about character. No-one sent up any of the characters, all the performers took their roles seriously, yet were clearly enjoying themselves, the comedy came from character, music and situation without any mugging or over-egging. The only change that Martin-Brandis made was to glide over the fact that in the original, Nemorino is Adina's employee, here he was simply a shy young man who was profoundly inhibited.

Joseph Morris' lively translation was modern in style and reference, but full of felicitous rhymes and, like the production, never tried too hard to be sharp. It was very much all of a piece with the performance and simply allowed us to enjoy the comic drama as it unfolded. There was no movement director and no choreographer, thankfully movement, apart from some dance moments noticeably in the Act One finale, never lapsed into stylised choreography that directors sometimes use to signal bel canto comedy.

Donizetti: The Elixir of Love - James Atkinson - Wild Arts (Photo: Lucy J Toms)
Donizetti: The Elixir of Love - James Atkinson - Wild Arts (Photo: Lucy J Toms)

It helped that the young cast all brought great style to their performances. Galina Averina made a feisty Adina; she is a lyric soprano rather than a coloratura, singing Mimi and Magda (in Puccini's La Rondine; she reprises the role with Opera North this Autumn), and she sang with lovely rich tone. Perhaps, occasionally, the top notes were a bit more effort than ideal, but such was the engagement of her performance that it didn't matter. This was an Adina of real personality, brought out in the music, and Averina nicely took Adina on a journey. She was never nasty, but moved from being self-absorbed to something more admirable.

As Nemorino, Thomas Elwin was back singing one of Donizetti's drippy heroes (Elwin was Gennaro in English Touring Opera's production of Lucrezia Borgia, see my reivew). Here he made Nemorino shy rather than idiotic and excelled at being delightfully bashful and reticent. From the outset, Elwin had you rooting for this underdog. It helped that Elwin sang with richly luxurious tone and a wonderful sense of line, and was deft on his feet as well! His 'Una furtiva lagrima' was rightly a hit of the evening, but the rest of his performance was on a par. It helped that Elwin and Averina had a believably sparky relationship, from the outset they crackled and sparked together so that their crucial final scene together at the end of Act Two, made real sense and had a dramatic sparkle.

James Atkinson has made a name for himself as a lieder singing but here he revealed not only a feeling for Italian bel canto but a lovely sense of comedy. This Belcore was a wonderfully preening and self-absorbed man, clearly so enamoured of his own importance that he had no idea what was going on around him. Atkinson sang Belcore's arias with a lovely sense of style and little exaggeration, it was all in the music and mannerism. Averina's Adina was clearly reluctantly mesmerised, and their scenes together were a complete delight. Such was Atkinson's engagement with the audience that when he got his comeuppance you felt like cheering.

Donizetti: The Elixir of Love - Thomas Elwin - Wild Arts (Photo: Bonnie Britain)
Donizetti: The Elixir of Love - Thomas Elwin - Wild Arts (Photo: Bonnie Britain)

Alex Jones was clearly having great fun as Dr Dulcamara, bringing out the character's knowingness. What makes Dulcamara fun is that he knows he is a peddling quack, and here Jones was adept at including the audience in the joke so that Jones' performance was one long sequence of confidences to us, breaking the fourth wall. Throughout Jones had command of Dulcamara's patter and his opening song, hymning the praises of his elixir was a complete delight, but then Jones' whole performance was.

The smaller roles were all well taken. Sofia Kirwan-Baez was Giannetta and Rebecca Milford was Lauretta and the two were joined by Harry Jacques and Robert Garland as chorus, the four providing a lively and believable backdrop. Initially in pairs, I loved the way Martin-Brandis had Harry Jacques' Claudio joining Lauretta and Giannetta in their over-the-top admiration for Nemorino when it becomes known that he is rich.

Hamish Brown's orchestration was delightfully inventive, utilising the small forces with imagination. It helped that all the players were deft and fine ensemble players, but I must single out trumpeter Sam Lewis for his nicely subtle playing and accordionist Inigo Mikeleiz for not only providing firm support and filling for the textures but even having an on-stage role (for Dulcamara and Adina's comic duet).

Donizetti: The Elixir of Love - Robert Garland, Harry Jacques, Rebecca Milford, Sofia Kirwan-Baez - Wild Arts (Photo: Bonnie Britain)
Donizetti: The Elixir of Love - Robert Garland, Harry Jacques, Rebecca Milford, Sofia Kirwan-Baez - Wild Arts (Photo: Bonnie Britain)

Thanks to the way Guido Martin-Brandis' production emphasised character and thanks to some stylish performances from the cast, this a wonderfully enjoyable and engaging performance that really punched above its weight. The audience in Thaxted clearly loved it and were fully engaged, whilst this experience review was carried away as well. I must add, that there was no feeling of a group of performers simply rocking up and singing, this was an admirably polished and rather sophisticated performance.

The tour continues in July and August, whilst Wild Arts has plenty of other events including the Roman River Festival in the Autumn. Check their website out for details.

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Mendelssohn, Schumann and a Noah Max premiere: Emma Abbate & the Tippett Quartet at the Thaxted Festival - concert review
  • Delving into her Greek background: Lisa Archontidi-Tsaldaraki's debut recital places 20th-century Greek composers alongside Bartok, Szymanowski and Ravel - interview
  • I have rarely heard Bach's Mass in B minor performed with such consistency of style, integrity and sheer musicality: Vox Luminis at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Music of such engaging variety and imagination: Richard Boothby's Music to hear... exploring Alfonso Ferrabosco's 1609 book of music for solo lyra viol - record review
  • A refreshing sense of lightness: Chichester Cathedral Choir & the Rose Consort of Viols in sacred music by Chichester Cathedral's 17th-century organist, Thomas Weelkes - record review
  • An engaging & ultimately touching evening: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Grange Festival - opera review
  • Visually seductive and strikingly arrestingThe Queen of Spades at The Grange Festival is a real study in obsession - opera review
  • Adding the countertenor voice to the conversation: Iestyn Morris on recording a disc of romantic Russian song - interview
  • One of the towering masterpieces of the chamber music repertoire: violinist Simon Blendis introduces Enescu's Octet - guest article
  • Stylish performances all round: a winning account of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at The Grange Festival that engages as well as questions - opera review
  • Rückert lieder: Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake in songs by Robert & Clara Schumann, Schubert, Henze and Mahler - concert review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month