Gaetano Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love was once the most popular opera around. It took just ten years (from its 1832 debut in Milano) to become so. Runaway showbiz hits aren’t anything new. Opera?! Showbiz?! Yes; especially when you afford it the informality director Simon Phillips does in this Opera Austtraliaproduction, which has been around since 2001 and was last seen in 2006. It’s been too long. Alongside the recent Rigoletto, I can’t think of an OA outing for which I harbour more fondness. This affection is spread almost equally: between Donizetti, the pauper who rose to unlikely prominence; his immodest, but gifted librettist, Felice Romani; Phillips, who’s probably OA’s best ammo, directorially; the cast (including chorus), which has responded so enthusiastically and animatedly to his direction. Andrespect and gratitude also goes to the Australian Opera & Ballet orchestra, conducted so elegantly by the boyish Guillaume Tourniaire.
Phillips has made very sound decisions. His thinking was that since the plot relies on characters credulous enough to accept that a ‘doctor’ passing through town could provide a failsafe love potion it called for a bucolic setting in which superstition might be as prevalent as education. So he gives us the outback.
One the sheer curtain that only partially obscures the set is a painting of what might be the MacDonnell ranges. Practically everything is fashioned from corrugated iron: horses; sheep; cows; dogs; a milking shed; chicken coop. It announces that this is opera buffa and we’re determined to have cheeky and self-mocking, but affectionate fun.
Yet even amidst this unashamed play for laughs there’s a fine artistic sensibility. Michael Scott Mitchell gives us a set of rare ingenuity and invention, but has used a palette that is pretty in that vaguely brutal Australian manner. Gabriela Tylesova’s costumes are in lockstep; her outrageous outfit for the fly-by-night ‘doctor’ probably tops the lot.
Phillips has placed us squarely at the outbreak of WW1: this because the work also demands recruitment of soldiers from the ranks of men naive enough to believe they’re embarking on a great, heroic adventure. And it’s not just the big picture that succeeds so brilliantly in Phillips vision. It’s the attention to comic detail. As when one of the corrugated sheep (on castors), having been sheared (yes, sheared, thanks to a removable iron ‘fleece’) is despatched off-stage and we hear a little crash. Or when we notice there’s a small ring-tailed possum perched atop the chook shed. Or when one of the performers pauses to step forward and check the surtitles. Or when, while being wooed, Adina, with picnic rug and basket, picks food from between her teeth.
Though slated to play Adina, Rachelle Durkin was down for the count, so Jane Ede stepped-up. She sang with complete self-assurance, her tone diamond-like and powerful. Of course, we have the sympathetic bel canto disposition of the composer, who’s afforded everyone on stage a very good sing; not least the chorus (especially the women’s), which outdid itself theatrically.
Aldo Di Toro’s tenor is fine indeed andat no point moreso than in the one heartstoppingly affecting aria for which this opera is renowned, Una furtiva lagrima. Besides which, he inhabits the role of the hopelessly devoted (to Adina), naive Nemorino so deftly: he may be gullible, but he’s a big, sweet, sincere, loveable teddy-bear and Di Toro makes sure we see him that way.
As his vain rival, Belcore, Samuel Dundas’ singing was mostly as highly-polished and attractive as Di Toro’s. Conal Coad’s Dulcamara arguably confirms him as the best actor on an opera stage, confident and nuanced, but the thundering strength of his voice is sometimes let down, when pushed to presto, which too often has him chasing the orchestra, trying to keep up.
What caps it off is Phillips liberal, er, translation of the text: for once, reading surtitles isn’t merely a key to clearer understanding, but a bloody riot, with its interpolation of fast-disappearing bush vernacular. If OA hasn’t recruited Colorbond and Coke as major sponsors it’s an opportunity lost, but, regardless, The Elixir of Love, Phillips-style, is bewdy bottler!