Annabel Arden's take on Donizetti's best-loved comic opera has become a hardy biennial at Glyndebourne: this marks the production's fourth appearance since its 2007 début (two at the Festival and two on the autumn tour). It's easy to see why. The music is sunny, the plot frivolous yet gripping and the staging works like a charm.
Naïve young peasant Nemorino is besotted with Adina, but his rival in love is a swaggering soldier, Sergeant Belcore, so he doesn't stand a chance. Then Dulcamara, a quack doctor, rolls into the village peddling his fake remedies to the gullible...
Glyndebourne's 2013 incarnation of L'elisir d'amore is polished and pretty, if a little muted in its impact. The fault for this lies not with Paul Higgins, the meticulous revival director, nor with Jeremy Bines's outstanding Chorus, nor indeed with the conductor, Pancho Gonzáles, who drew sparkling playing on opening night from the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra, but with a number of crucial disappointments within the cast.
Christopher Tiesi possesses a plangent tenor timbre but his intonation let him down at several key moments, and his face was insufficiently expressive for a man who has to carry and propel Donizetti's warmly silly tale. You can't play Nemorino as Buster Keaton, so it became hard to identify with his woes or to cheer when he overcame them. Still, he made a good fist of the opera's best-loved aria, ‘Una furtiva lagrima'.
It will be a pleasure to hear Riccardo Novaro one day in one of the Mozart roles for which he is renowned, but Dulcamara is not a part that suits him. He is a forthright, mellifluous baritone and a dynamic actor, but his delivery of the buffo patter numbers was effortful and his interplay with Nemorino devoid of sparks. As for the village girl Gianetta, since hers is one of only two significant female roles in the opera she needs to leave more of an imprint on the production than Sadhbh Dennedy achieved.
Rising above everyone else was the radiant Adina of Joélle Harvey, an American soprano in the Danielle de Niese mould whose intelligent interpretations and fresh, agile voice have sent her star rocketing into the ascendant. Harvey successfully found the measure of a problematic role (Adina is less a heroine than a dramatic device) by playing her allure as Carmen-lite. Her ‘Escamillo', Belcore, emerged – correctly – as a braggart but not a blackguard, and was pleasantly sung and wittily played by Alessandro Luongo at the head of a raggle-taggle quartet of soldiers.
Annabel Arden's background in physical comedy – she was a founder member of Complicité way back when – allows her to fill a stage with vibrant, comic ideas that arise with inventive freshness from the musical score. She has added a Marcello Magni-style mime character to Donizetti's cast list (termed simply ‘Dulcamara's Assistant' in the programme) and he is played with frenetic wit here as at previous revivals by the tireless James Bellorini.
Lez Brotherston's straightforward, Vittorio de Sica-inspired set advances the action to the mid-20th Century; but the timelessness of this bucolic tale means its location is neither here nor there – provided it can accommodate a yokel, a soldier, an attractive young woman and plenty of sunshine.