This year’s CUOS mainshow joins in on the current vogue for Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, a popular opera which seems to be enjoying even more stagings than usual.
It’s good-natured and, at its, best, effervescent. This production has its sparkling moments, but is unable to sustain them over the course of the opera. Much of it seemed rather rough: the pit sometimes uncoordinated, the chorus dramatically unsure, the costumes scattered, the set design a bit peremptory. The contrast between the naturalistic flowers and benches on one half and the expressionist draping of red fabric over the other, both halves of which looked good separately (apart from a plastic chair which looked like it came straight out of a seminar room) was never effectively played up.
The different eras chosen for the costumes also looked messy, because some of them were very similar and some wildly different. It was very good to hear it in Italian rather than English, but the translation (given on screens to the side of the stage) was poor – jokes about ‘Sainsbury’s own-brand wine’ and the ‘customs union’ were a bit self-satisfied and, worse, weren’t funny – and its projection was chaotic, consistently running three or four lines behind what was being sung on stage.
The conducting of musical director Edward Reeve was sometimes very sensitive and considered, but mostly just unexceptionable, and he allowed the drama to sag perceptibly between numbers. The orchestra generally played well, although they lost energy whenever the dynamics or tempo dropped, and more florid writing was messy. Intonation was frequently imprecise, and ensemble between stage and pit was often questionable: in the Act 1 finale almost every number came apart. Under chorus master Luke Fitzgerald, the chorus made a nice sound (although with some eccentric Italian), particularly the all-female ensemble in Act 2. They were unable to match this dramatically: in Act 1 they mostly hung around the stage. There were some nice touches of characterisation from director Judith Lebiez, but generally she was unable to make them dramatic presences. Her attempts to use the auditorium as a dramatic space were unconvincing – surely at this point the most radical thing to do would be to just keep the action on the stage?
The individual performances of the principals were universally commendable, and they all made the most of the Italian text. Anna Wagner as Adina was a compelling presence on stage and handled the more intricate writing neatly. She was sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra, but her performance had a lovely balance between dramatic commitment and stylish singing. As quack-doctor Dulcamara, James Quilligan acted very well and had many of the funniest moments. Occasionally his singing was a bit too speechy, but the numbers between Wagner and Quilligan were the production’s tightest and most entertaining. As Nemorino, Henry Websdale had wonderfully ringing top notes which contrasted with the more soft-grained middle of the voice. He could have been given a bit more direction than just wringing his hands, but he was an endearing if stolid actor. As the swaggering military captain Belcore, Louis Wilson acted well and sang well, but did the two things separately. There was some nicely pompous ornamentation, but it would have been nice to hear the character inflect the voice a little more.
Everything in this production seemed to be well done in pieces, but was rather messy when brought together. Performances were individually good but seemed adrift; orchestral playing was often good on its own but failed to link up tightly enough with the stage. When it did come together – as happened more consistently in the second act – the performance fizzed, but all too often it didn’t. I’d be surprised if the piece didn’t improve markedly over its run, but the highlights of this performance always couldn’t save its lacklustre moments.