As frothily effervescent as a freshly shaken bottle of Coke, this blue chip 2001 production bubbles over with amusing delight.
Simon Phillips’ rural Australian setting is the gift that keeps on giving, providing all the gullible townsfolk and freshly enlisted soldiers the story requires. Directed for all intents and purposes like a merry musical, the simple love story, abundance of chorus work and eminently hummable melodies more than hold up to the treatment, creating an evening of easy enjoyment for music lovers of all backgrounds.
Like a musical, the opera begins with a chorus number, “Bel conforto,” before quickly featuring an I wish song as Nemorino dreams of wooing the fair Adina in “Quanto è bella.” Adina and travelling quack Dr Dulcamara sing charm song “Io son ricco e tu sei bella” at the wedding feast, and Nemorino has an 11 o’clock number in the romantic aria “Una furtive lagrima.”
Among the many deft comic touches, Phillips’ jingoistic surtitles cap off the Australiana theme perfectly, their judicious use keeping well clear of the crass excess of 2014’s The Turk in Italy. And the surtitles are not just there for the audience: when Nemorino cannot understand what Dulcamara is saying though a mouthful of chicken, he runs onto the stage apron for a quick squiz at the surtitles.
Revival direct Matthew Barclay respects Phillips’ gentle original concept, keeping performances neatly restrained so as to successfully deliver the character-based humour.
Michael Scott-Mitchell’s timeless scenic design displays a level of wit rarely seen in scenic design. Constructed entirely from corrugated iron, the setting is a blaze of rich outback colour. Visitors are seen approaching ever closer across the background of rolling hills. Neighing rideable horses, nodding, shearable sheep and mooing, milkable cows complete the pretty pastoral picture.
Gabriela Tylesova displays her renowned artistic brilliance with beautifully painted costumes that stand out from the set and support the countrified concept. Wealthy landowner Adina’s first dress has a lush, verdant design that distinguishes her from the arid motifs on the dresses of the other local women. Her wedding dress features delectable swirls of luscious pink and yellow. Dulcamara sports vivid city colours, and the enlisted men in uniform are theatrically topped with authentic ostrich plumes in their slouch hats.
Nick Schlieper’s lighting design, realised by Wesley Hiscock, brings out the vivid colours of the design, lighting the corrugated sets so as to provide maximum texture.
Matching the gently paced action on stage, maestro Benjamin Northey coaxes a delicate performance of Donizetti’s infectious score from Orchestra Victoria. Lovely featured moments are heard from bassoon and harp in “Una furtiva lagrima.” The production is fortunate indeed to have assistant conductor Brian Castles-Onion on fortepiano.
Acting chorus master Thomas Johnson draws a wonderfully balanced, unified sound from the chorus. Mention must be made of the terrific acting work from the chorus, embracing their roles as Arcadian pastoralists, and they even prove adept at a bit of Heel and Toe Polka.
In a performance that grows more endearing as the evening progresses, Rachelle Durkin’s Adina blossoms from bookish, bristling beauty to loving, generous woman. Her coloratura in agile form, Durkin sings the role with effortless, affecting sweetness, also flexing her redoubtable comic chops to great effect. Having thrilled audiences with her Adina (here and Sydney 2014) and Norina (Sydney 2013 and Melbourne 2014) over the past three years, it is disappointing to note that Durkin is not listed for any appearances in Opera Australia’s 2016 season. Hopefully Durkin’s schedule will provide the chance to enjoy her substantial talents again locally in future seasons.
Although Aldo Di Toro does not embody the traditional “peasant lad” portrayal of Nemorino, his mature appearance adds an extra layer of pathos, creating a Nemorino who has been a wallflower far too long and yearns for his one (last?) chance of happiness. The undisputed vocal highlight of the evening, Di Toro’s soaring rendition of well-known tenor aria “Una furtiva lagrima” burns with unrequited longing.
Treasured bass Conal Coad is in his element as the duplicitous Doctor Dulcamara, his nimble stage presence belying his many years of experience. Bringing an innate dignity to the comedy, Coad is a terrific scene partner with each of his co-stars, and, vocally, his rapid patter never fails to entertain.
In fine voice, baritone Christopher Hillier deftly conveys the arrogant buffoonery of Belcore without overplaying the comedy.
Talented soprano Eva Kong proves there are no small roles as Giannetta, elevating a featured chorus role to a delightful supporting turn.
Presented in repertory with The Marriage of Figaro, Opera Australia has treated Melbourne spring audiences to a pair of delightfully accessible comedies. First-time operagoers are spoilt for choice.
The Elixir of Love plays selected dates at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 28 November 2015.
Photos: Jeff Busby