Light as cotton candy, sparkling as soda pop, frothy as vanilla malt, Donizetti's irresistible confection is on sale for a limited period in Jonathan Miller's tumbleweed diner, now open for business at the London Coliseum.
Happily, little damage is done to love's elixir by shifting the action of this crowd-pleaser from peasant Europe, circa 1800, to the American Midwest in the nineteen-fifties. The cultural familiarity of such a filmic locale helps ground the piece for a modern audience; besides, our hero, Nemorino, will be a gullible hick wherever he lays his hat, or wherever quacks like Dulcarama peddle their wares. There is a dustbowl naturalism to Isabella Bywater's set (notwithstanding the motionless cattle on the backdrop), and when a period gas-guzzler rolls up at Adina's eatery in a little deuce coup de théâtre, we know we're in a proper movie.
The principals are a good team, too. John Tessier reprises his Nemorino from New York City Opera and wows the house with a heart-stopping ‘Una furtiva lagrima'. Sarah Tynan matches him vocally, some fleeting lapses of intonation aside, and brings lissom wit to Adina, whom she plays as a bel canto Marilyn Monroe. David Kempster's characterful ‘Sergeant' Belcore is a bass-baritone boor who can sing, walk and chew gum at the same time, and Andrew Shore is in show-stealing form – witty, articulate and hilarious – as the charlatan Dulcarama.
Things are less happy in the pit, where Pablo Heras-Casado regularly allows the ENO Orchestra to overwhelm the voices in tutti passages. His conducting is prosaic at best: there is a sense of drag in his pacing (fatal in such a lightweight score) and each of the two acts ends on a distinctly underwhelming chorus. Even so, Heras-Casado cannot shoulder sole responsibility for the evening's overall flatness. Miller has developed some directorial ticks of late: there is a pointless lavatory sequence, as there was in last year's La Bohème; the chorus of women mug to excess, and (paradoxically) the humour of Tessier's role arrives packaged more for Chekhov than for comic opera. Even more disappointing is the lack of visual comedy. With a few low-level exceptions, creative invention is at a premium.
The most serious problem of all, though, is Kelley Rourke's rendering of Romani's libretto into colloquial American. In New York this production was given in the original Italian, and audiences could enjoy the harmonious confluence of music and language. London hears Donizetti's elegant score through the vernacular filter of "If he doesn't shut his trap he'll get a knuckle sandwich", Belcore's multiple repetitions of of "Begone, you meathead, get outa here" and, in a nod to Sondheim, "An elixir with a kick, sir". It's a constant distraction.
Nevertheless, all credit to Miller for allowing American characters to sing in American accents. It works perfectly well, not least when Shore does his Elvis impersonation during a proto-karaoke episode (shades of the Duke's juke box in Rigoletto?). It's unclear why the use of accent and dialect has previously been such a taboo at ENO, but here is proof that idiomatic diction need not compromise musical integrity. The Queen's R.P. in the land of the free? Never again please.