NZ Opera’s trans-Tasman “The Elixir of Love ” a corker!

New Zealand Opera presents:
THE ELIXIR OF LOVE  (L’Elisir d’amore)
– an opera by Gaetano Donizetti (Italian libretto by Felice Romani)

Cast: Adina – Amina Edris
Nemorino – Pene Pati
Belcore – Morgan Pearse
Dr. Dulcamara – Conal Coad
Giannetta – Natasha Wilson

Director: Simon Phillips
Restage Director: Matthew Barclay
Assistant Director: Jacqueline Coats
Designer: Michael Scott-Mitchell
Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper
Costume Designer: Gabriela Tylesova

Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus
Chorusmaster – Michael Vinten

Orchestra Wellington
Conductor: Wyn Davies

Opera House, Wellington
Saturday, 23rd June 2018

(until Saturday 30th June)

Y’ know wot I reckon, mate? I reckon yer need ter get yerself inter town bloody pronto, if yer ain’t a city slicker (I know a few o’ those geezers as well and they’re not bad blokes, considering…..) and grab a cuppla seats for yusself an’ yer missus or yer sheila or whomever, so youse won’t miss out on the show at the Opera House (she’s actually a cracker of an old place, really) – I took the missus, and we bloody  ‘ad a whale of a time! – – yeah, mate, opera! – bloke called Donny…..Donny, er….Donny  Zetty, or whatever, wrote it! – what? – boring? – no fear, mate – well,  yeah,  I ‘ad me doubts when me missus said “We’re goin!” – but stone the crows, mate, we went in an’ sat down, and it got all dark, and the curtains opened and the music started – tell yer wot, mate, I wuz knocked sideways! – I wuz ‘ooked! Bee-YOU-derful! An’ cripes,  could they play! –  loud an’ clear as a bunch of tuis!  – Wot’s that? – Sing?  Like birds in the bush, mate! – Rosellas? – nah! – not those geezers! – real songbirds, I reckon! Yeah!…….just beaut!

I thought I’d begin my review of the evening’s entertainment in keeping with some of the more colloquial surtitle renderings in, er, “Antipodean English” of the production’s sung Italian – but having thrown myself holus bolus into the idioms, I feared I might start to enjoy the process, to the detriment of the actual content! So I shall desist from any further self-indulgence by tearing myself away from these unfettered subversions, these totally un-PC modes of expression, all of which hearken back to a still-remembered time when air was clean and sex was dirty! However, the above sentiments serve to express a basic amazement and exhilaration which relate (in cleaned-up contemporaneous terms) to the bubbling enthusiasms I met with afterwards from all and sundry concerning this joyous presentation!

I must admit to regard attempts at “updating” productions of opera with some scepticism – the motivation for these efforts in many cases (all too apparent in the result) seems to come not out of any deep-seated artistic conviction backed by skill and talent, but from strangely wrought and in my view politically suspect reasonings from certain quarters that modern audiences are unwilling or unable to “connect” with any theatrical experience in a setting more than a century old. The fact that both Greek and Elizabethan drama have triumphantly survived centuries of existence on the strength of their originally-conceived guises (give or take a few degrees of occasional discreetly-applied contemporaneous refraction) seems not to have occurred to the pedlars of default-setting “movement with the times” productions. It’s actually an indictment of the post-modern age, a kind of malaise that seems to have gripped certain strands of activity in the performing arts in general of late – one expressed most succinctly by the Australian cartoonist Leunig, in a famous “Love in the Milky Way” essay, calling it the “dumbing down and pumping up process”, where entertainment and titillation rather than provocation and true engagement are the goals.

So, I’m thrilled to report that director Simon Phillips’ resetting of Donizetti’s and Romani’s original in the early part if the twentieth century in the Australian outback works brilliantly, principally because of Phillips’ ability to “think into and through” the original opera’s raison d’etre. How surely he’s able to maintain the original’s theme of a simple fellow’s naivety in believing in a kind of “love potion” pedalled by a con-man revolves around his adroit use of what he terms “ imperialist” forces at work in Australia around the time of the new setting. These are personified by the English army officer marshalling his recruited forces as part of the war effort, and the travelling “Rawleigh’s Man” from the United States, whose activities are here augmented by a kind of piece de resistance – what Phillips calls in his “director’s message” printed in the programme “the ultimate symbol of capitalist colonisation” – enough said at this point, except that it does its work as THE elixir to resounding effect!

Whether in this particular case God or the Devil was in the detail, any number of small but important features played their part in enhancing Phillips’ vision, while keeping alive the essential spirit of the original which the “update” had happily preserved.  The stage settings and atmospheric lighting evoked the vastness of the Outback (“a lyricism of line and colour” as Phillips put it), the rustic surroundings suggested with as much point as the attendant isolation and hint of psychological claustrophobia. Heightening these salient characteristics were the travellers, soldiers and salesmen, whose distant approaches were charmingly and amusingly portrayed in something akin to an early cinematographic technique, again reinforcing time and place so very effectively and disarmingly. The animal effigies, from cattle and sheep (the latter “shorn” to great and amusing effect) and a telegraph line dotted with birds, to the soldiers’ horses and a dog (who featured in a lovely “summonsed” vignette) contributed to the presentation’s general atmosphere and good-humoured theatricality. And, the con-man Dulcamara’s array of goods was winningly displayed, before being trumped (I use the word advisedly) by the subsequent hyped-up presentation of the elixir itself!

Variously pirouetting, stumbling, strutting, and swanking through the situations played out in this scenario were the principal characters in the story – and firstly came the two would-be “lovers”, Adina, played by Amina Edris, and Nemorino, by Pene Pati (the two singers incidentally, wife and husband respectively, in real life!). Both characters were here beautifully contrived and warmly “fleshed out”, with a winning naturalness of manner underpinning their respective assumptions, and avoiding any suggestion of cliché. Each had their own “agent provocateur” in a wider theatrical sense, Adina her “military man” suitor, the dashing Belcore (a “tour de force” realisation by Morgan Pearse) and Nemorino his “saviour” with a magic elixir, Dr. Dulcamara (a similarly “larger then life” characterisation by Conal Coad). Perhaps Morgan Pearse’s patronisingly pompous portrayal (sorry – those three Ps just slipped out!) of a British Army Officer tipped over into occasional caricature, but the silliness of some of his antics didn’t entirely mask the galvanising effect of his intent upon the opera’s real business, which was the eventual unmasking of love’s TRUE elixir.

Amina Edris, as Adina, splendidly conveyed her character’s charm, flirtatiousness and essential goodness with a stage presence that conveyed both allure and a wholesome “girl-next-door” quality, managing to straightaway convey her ambivalence regarding the story she is reading from a book, the legend of Tristan and Isolde – regarding it as a “bizarra l’avventura”, yet allowing herself a degree of wishful thinking regarding the potion’s capabilities. Her easeful and unselfconscious vocal inflections and detailings consistently brought the text to life, enabling her character to vividly come “full circle” from cocquettish tease to committed sweetheart over the course of the opera. I particularly enjoyed her teasing exposé  with Dulcamara of the source of the “true” elixir (at the bogus doctor’s expense, and in the face of which he gallantly admits defeat), though it was all of a piece with her “testing” her lover Nemorino with his army regiment contract in the final scene, flooding her utterances with emotion when he convinces her it is she that he loves.

Though Nemorino is often portrayed on stage as something of a rustic simpleton, Pene Pati instead put his own great-hearted brand of unswerving single-mindedness into the character’s direct and honest makeup. His unrequited intent towards Adina shone through with a disarmingly simple and sometimes even poetic effect, as with his response to her playfully-avowed kinship with the “fickle breeze”, poignantly coming back at her with his idea of a steadfast river seeking its end in the ocean’s embrace. Always vocally elegant, by turns sensitive and forthright in expression, his portrayal also had moments of droll humour, such as his quick-witted consultation of one of Dulcamara’s surtitles, during an exchange when the latter tried to sing with his mouth full! – a moment which further rounded out his character! His big piece, of course, was “Una furtiva lagrima”, a rendition whose spontaneous-sounding utterance and natural shaping was in complete accord with his efforts and eventual success in winning Adina’s heart.

Director Simon Phillips made the point that the opera’s scenario is ultimately about the psychology of want and need, what he terms the “gullibility of humankind and the perverse complexity of emotional manipulation”. Both Belcore, the dashing sergeant in charge of a troop of recruits on their route march, and Dr.Dulcamara, the purveyor of his “elixir of love” are the catalysts for Adina and Nemorino, in their respective processes of  “working-through” these human conditions to discover their real feelings for one another. Each of their “agents” are caricatures of a kind, Belcore, the Sergeant, the embodiment of a military man, dashing and confident, and regarding himself as “God’s gift to women”, waging a “campaign” of sorts to secure Adina’s affections replete with overweening posturing and bravado. Morgan Pearse relished his opportunities, both physical and vocal,  demonstrating considerable physical dexterity in his swashbuckling attempts to render all female hearts a-flutter (with at least one swooning beauty in evidence) – the soldiers’ arrival with Belcore at their head on splendidly-detailed horse effigies was in itself a spectacle!

As for Conal Coad, a familiar figure for all opera-goers in this country, his was a typically sonorous and well-rounded piece of characterisation as Dr. Dulcamara, plying his wares with all the fervour and theatricality of an old-time preacher, dispensing joy and relief to all, and keeping one step ahead of the law in the process – though he obviously relished his updated Antipodean status as having “establishment” connections with big business and its accompanying status! Although he was able to profit, not unkindly, from Nemorino’s desperation, he met his match in Adina, almost running away with his own imagination at one point in describing the power of her elixir-like charms! – “Questa bocca cosi bella e d’amor la spezieria – Si, hai lambicco ed hai fornello….” – (That pretty mouth is love’s apocathery – yes, you have a crucible and a furnace, you little rogue…). Sly, venal and with an instinct for making easy money, Coad’s Dulcamara depicted a loveable rogue, one whose spontaneous “party-piece” with Adina as a rich senator propositioning a boat-girl, translated amusingly as “You are young and I am rich / Wouldn’t you like to get hitched?” – or words to that effect, added fuel to the flames of fun!

As the village girl Giannetta, in the forefront of the chorus, Natasha Wilson sparkled with fun, along with her female cohorts, delightfully flirtatious firstly with Belcore, and later, with Nemorino, upon hearing news of the latter’s inheritance, via a lately-deceased uncle. Under Michael Vinten’s expert guidance, the voices of the Freemasons NZ Opera Chorus delivered poised and sonorous lines of characterful, detailed tones, bringing to life the more communal moments of the story in a seamless dramatic flow. The Picnic at Hanging Rock-like costumes worked a cracker (sorry!), and contributed most effectively to the evocative “look” of the production.

It all sparkled right from the word go, with conductor Wyn Davies drawing from the Orchestra Wellington players bright and vigorous tones which sang out unimpeded throughout the Wellington Opera House’s grateful acoustic. Whether sensitive lyricism, sparkling effervescence or good-natured buffoonery was called for, Davies and the Orchestra were there as the steadfast and often brilliant consignors of the composer’s magically-wrought score, for our on-going pleasure and delight. All-in-all, I thought this “The Elixir of Love” a most entertaining and richly satisfying production – you might say, if you were so inclined, “a corker!”

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