In OperaUpClose’s production of L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), the King’s Head Theatre welcomes us with an astro turf floor and stage walls covered in pink, orange and yellow flowers and a long pool, denoted by blue paint with wavy lighting and white squiggles for ripples. It is 1950s Hollywood, and the engaged starlet Adina (a standout Una Reynolds) is coveted by Nemerino (Alex Vearey-Roberts), her gardener/poolboy and an aspiring screenwriter.
Under Valentina Ceschi’s direction, the comic opera is a fun and clever two hours. We start with our lovebirds lounging by the pool, sipping martinis (or working, in Nemerino’s case) and eyeing each other behind aviators and cat eye shades. As they dash about in swimming trunks, Panama hats, sneakers and set hair, we get our second conflict.
Adina's fiancé Belcore (Marc Callahan), a soldier and budding Congressman, wants to set a date to make Adina ‘my trophy wife’, but she keeps stalling. She tells Nemerino later, she’d rather be free to have ‘ev’ry day a diff’rent lover’. When ‘Doctor’ Dulcamara (Alistair Sutherland), makeup stylist to the stars, arrives in a bow tie and fedora to peddle panaceas from mascara to creams, Nemerino lifts a yellow hula hoop behind his head: a halo. The elixir of love which Nemerino begs Dulcamara to sell him (actually a gin fizz) is what sets off the sequence of machinations.
In addition to amusing, the production engages us with an intimate theatre, modern setting and English adaptation (by Thomas Eccleshare). As in other OperaUpClose productions, such as Tosca and the Olivier-winning La Bohème, these elements endear you to the characters and action. Here, unlike in larger opera houses, you see the performers’ expressions perfectly well without glasses. The only glasses you do wear, at the start and end of Act II, are Happy Eyes lenses which make you see hearts round every light. The effect imbues in us the very ‘love goggles’ besotting our foursome, and when the lights came on in Act II, it made people say ‘Aw’.
Another highlight comes when Adina’s best friend Gianetta (Caroline Kennedy) gossips with two gal pals (Sutherland and Callahan), swathed in dressing gowns and hair towels, about how Nemerino’s scripts have sold to Hollywood studios and made him a very eligible millionaire. In the world of L’elisir d’amore, having or feigning money (in men) and beauty (in women) is what makes one desirable – oh, wait ...
Dulcamara asks us, in the end, to remember ‘that with love the world is lighter / you don’t need my elixir’, but if you follow this play, you’ll need to play games. Though Adina comes to love Nemerino back, we never learn what makes her embrace commitment over freedom. Presumably, that is the ineffable magic of love.