The Elixir of Love, ENO

But, if we
imagine that love potions, placebos and quackery, are a thing of the past, we
only have to remember that there’s still a vibrant market for Viagra and
rhino horn.

So, it’s clear that the follies and frailties which are gently
lampooned in Donizetti’s tale have not yet been eradicated, and Jonathan
Miller’s production, while indulgently charming, never lets the cynical
gaze drop: Nemorino’s transfiguration from simple-minded mechanic to
James Dean look-a-like is effected by a lusty swig of cheap Kentucky bourbon;
the gushing adoration of the female population is motivated more by his recent
monetary good fortune than any sudden recognition of his innate qualities as a
lover and husband. Human gullibility is still going strong.

First seen at ENO in February 2010, Miller’s 1950s Mid-Western
re-location works a treat — the rolling golden plains and sky-blue
expanse which stretch as far as the eye can see evoke an innocent place far
from modern urbanity; the homespun folk are just ripe for exploitation by an
itinerant charlatan.

We are invited to relax and enjoy ourselves at ‘Adina’s
Diner’, a bustling watering hole superbly imagined by Isabella Bywater,
in a naturalist recreation of the era, all clashing complementary tones of
vibrant pink and green. This revival hasn’t managed to overcome an innate
challenge presented by the set, however; for while the resourceful rotation of
the design is inventive, the interior itself is rather too cramped. When the
whole town crowd inside there’s barely room to breathe, let alone sing
and dance, and the chorus are often static and unengaging. That said, in the
opening scene Nemorino (Ben Johnson) seemed further forward than I remembered
from the previous run, enabling him to be more clearly heard above orchestra
and chorus, and effectively drawing the audience’s attention to his
downheartedness and romantic dilemma from the start.

Andrew Shore’s performance as the nattily dressed Dr Dulcamara,
equipped with a silken tongue and a sharp nose for commercial opportunities,
won him an Olivier nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Opera in 2010, and
he’s certainly the star of the show. Gliding into the town in a gleaming
Cadillac cabriolet — even the desert dust can’t dampen the dazzle
of his entrance — this slick fraudster so genuinely relishes his own
ingenuity, warmly encouraging all who dash to sample his wares that he’s
almost impossible to dislike. As usual, Shore’s diction is exemplary
— no need for surtitles as he assuredly launches into his glib
advertising sales pitch: “If you reek of halitosis/ Then take a couple of

He’s undoubtedly the star-turn, but there is a danger that it might
seem as if the whole production has been designed as a Shore-showcase, were it
not for the impressive performance of Sarah Tynan returning to the role of
Adina. The pert blonde bob flawlessly coiffed, the Monroe-wiggle honed to
perfection, Tynan evinces confidence and allure, her voice luscious and

As the naÔve, nerdy, love-struck Nemorino, Ben Johnson certainly pulled the
heartstrings. He is in full command of the Italianate style, his phrases
elegantly shaped; and his attractive tone is complemented by convincing acting,
the comic gestures discreet but telling. The ardent yearnings of “Una
furtiva lagrima” can seem a little out of place after the preceding
light-hearted mischief, and I found Johnson rather too intense: it seemed
impossible that this garage dunce could feel passions so profound, and express
sentiments so earnest. However, Johnson had all the notes — although
there were a few rough edges as he strove for depth of feeling — and the
aria was well-received; it evidently moved the hearts of the audience, if not
the money-grabbing girls of the town.

Benedict Nelson, as Belcore, demonstrated a pleasing, focused tone, although
his voice is a little too light-weight for this auditorium and did not always
carry. Nelson’s was an intelligent dramatic interpretation: he did not
overdo the brash blustering, and for once it did not seem incredible that Adina
might fall for Belcore’s charms. And, in his Act 2 confrontation with
Nemorino the two men worked effectively together.

Despite fine performances from all the principals — including Ella
Kirkpatrick as an alert, smart Giannetta — the show did not always
sparkle, however. Russ Macdonald’s tempi were simply too slow, the
instrumental playing too leaden; and the overall effect was more toffee apple
than candyfloss. That said, the astuteness of Miller’s perceptions, aided
by Kelley Rourke’s witty ‘translation’ (although while the
Americanisms — “knuckle sandwich”, “hello
cupcake” – pay effective homage to Porter and Sondheim, the cast’s
American accents are less consistent), and impressive performances in the
central roles, make for a highly agreeable, satisfying evening.

Claire Seymour

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image_description=The Elixir of Love [Image courtesy of English National Opera]
product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: The Elixir of Love
product_by=Nemorino: Ben Johnson; Adina: Sara Tynan; Belcore: Benedict Nelson; Dr Dulcamara: Andrew Shore; Giannetta: Ella Kirkpatrick. Conductor: Russ Macdonald. Director: Jonathan Miller. Revival Director: Elaine Tyler-Hall. Set Design: Isabella Bywater. Lighting Design: Hans ƒke-Sjˆquist. English National Opera, London Coliseum. Thursday 15th September 2011.
product_id=Above image courtesy of English National Opera