Donizetti must have loved feisty women, women who protest against abuse. Recent Melbourne productions have shown us the ultimate: Lucia, so put upon that she murdered her husband on their wedding night; then there is Rita, who was abused by her first husband and in turn abuses her rather gormless second one. Last year Opera Australia gave us Norina, a clever cynic not above a bit of physical abuse when sorely provoked. And now we have another portrait of witty cynicism in Adina, who cruelly strings poor old Nemorino along until she is jolted into the reality of possibly losing something of value.
In both Don Pasquale and The Elixir of Love the female protagonist begins with an aria mocking the sentimentality of popular romances. In the latter case, it is the legend of Tristan and Isolde that sparks derision. The love potion that is the supposed cause of their undoing becomes the comic theme of Donizetti’s opera.
Director Simon Phillips presents Adina as an educated woman in control. She wears glasses (suggestive of a prolific reader) and she picnics in the paddock with a wind-up phonograph. She is also an accomplished jodhpur-clad horsewoman. Rachelle Durkin’s lithe portrayal accentuated Adina’s confidence and made her eventual change of heart all the more effective. Durkin is an expressive actress, who used her pleasing light, flexible voice to negotiate the many coloratura passages with ease and precision. She also had enough vocal projection and power to provide good balance in the ensemble pieces.
As a country bumpkin with a loving heart, Aldo di Toro was an endearing foil to Durkin’s breezy pragmatism. In a production that calls for a high degree of physical coordination, he gave a sure-footed performance. His deft shearing of the sheep was a comic highlight. He also aroused sympathy with his ability to shift so well between forlorn disappointment and ebullient optimism. Much of his vocal performance was strong, in fact quite beautiful, but he seemed less at ease in quieter passages. Although the famous tenor aria Una furtiva lagrima was accorded the most applause for the evening, those whose most vivid experience of that aria was when a relatively unknown Pavarotti was compelled to reprise it during a 1965 Sutherland-Williamson season performance, may have been less enthusiastic.
The third member of the love triangle is the impossibly vain Belcore, a sergeant who believes, with some justification, that every female is ready to fall at his feet. Christopher Hillier made the most of this role with a strong, appealing baritone and comic zest. He too proved to be a most capable mover on stage.
Perhaps the most remarkable of those engaging in energetic capering while singing was Conal Coad as Dulcamara, the duplicitous purveyor of the eponymous elixir. Aided by some ingenious comic devices, he made an engaging charlatan. His physical stamina and patter song dexterity had been impressive features of his Don Pasquale characterization and he brought these qualities to an expansive treatment of Dulcamara. His sonorous bass baritone and reliable musicality contributed markedly to the vocal strength of the performance and to the general merriment.
In the smaller role of Giannetta, Eva Kong followed up her success as Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro with another delightful performance.
Although this production has aroused some controversy in the past, even the most diehard opera conservative would have to acknowledge there was some entertainment to be had that was in keeping with the composer’s intentions. True, there did seem to be a surfeit of jokes at times. The Aussie translation was perhaps too liberally larded with colloquialisms such as bobby dazzler, corker, knockout and sheila and the animal noises may have become a little repetitive, but the circa 1915 Australian rural setting worked a great deal better than many “updates”.
The scrim curtain with its vivid painting of an Australian landscape and the brightly coloured corrugated iron scenery made the stage glow. You had to hand it to the technical crew (and the cast) for their smooth operation of Michael Scott-Mitchell’s intricately designed set. Adina, Belcore and members of his Light Horse Brigade rode mobile horses and Nemorino’s tail wagging dog featured along with the cows and nodding sheep. The scene in the hen house involved some well-coordinated choreography from the ladies of the chorus, who channeled their inner chook remarkably well. Dulcamara’s truck and the final satirical product placement elixir reveal were also nicely executed.
At the amplified fortepiano Brian Castles-Onion took the opportunity to insert a couple of musical jokes, the most obvious being a fragment of Wagner’s love potion motif. Although there was a rocky moment towards the end of the opera when ensemble and orchestra were not quite in rhythmic accord, an energetic Benjamin Northey conducted a responsive orchestra.
This is a production intent on having fun and can be highly recommended to anybody who values comic invention, skilled performance and a melodious score.
The picture of Rachelle Durkin as Adina is by Jeff Busby.
Heather Leviston attended opening night at the Arts Centre Melbourne on November 21.