Something remarkable has happened to Jonathan Miller’s
dustbowl Donizetti. Last year’s flaccidly conducted, variably sung first outing
at English National Opera has given way to a sparkling restaging that’s tight,
bright and light on its feet.
Rory Macdonald is the man who’s revived this production in
more ways than one, and he guides the ENO Orchestra through a whizzing account
of this most frolicsome of 19th-century scores. Balance, tempo, pace, idiom and
warmth – every imaginable quality is exactly right and the musicians play like
angels under his baton. Such a talent should be grabbed and glorified in some
permanent capacity by one of the major houses.
ENO has been quick to pinpoint Ben Johnson as that rare
phenomenon, an English tenor who can sing Italian bel canto
like a native. If the tills don’t quite ring on the money notes just yet, the
moment is near when they will; meanwhile this gifted young singer, so striking
as the Novice in last year’s Glyndebourne Billy Budd, shines
like a new star as he combines his exquisite, unforced vocal line with a shambling
comic touch that eluded his predecessor in the central role of Nemorino.
Galvanised by the conductor’s zestful leadership, Sarah
Tynan gives a complete interpretation of Adina, the object of Nemorino’s
affections. Not only has she eradicated the problems of intonation that affected
her first-night performance in 2010 (a few nerves then, I imagine), but the
fluent ease of her singing in her Act Two duet with Dulcamara makes light of
the music’s (and Macdonald’s) fiendish demands.
Tynan’s physical performance, too, is an eye-popper. She
uses her perfectly-observed Marilyn Monroe gestures to convey Adina’s true
intentions even when her words and deeds are saying otherwise. This is where
Jonathan Miller’s ’fifties setting comes into its own, for where better to throw
a sexy dinette into the arms of a naïve hick than in a movie-style Midwest?
Andrew Shore reprises his Olivier-nominated Dulcamara – a
Professor Marvel who rolls up in his gas-guzzler and gulls the local gullible.
Shore never sheds his gleeful mood as the old quack’s buffo
patter tumbles from his duplicitous lips.
The evening is replete with delights (not least a
splendidly-sung cameo from Ella Kirkpatrick as Giannetta) and Rory Macdonald’s
spry baton work ensures that Kelley Rourke’s Americanisation of Romani’s
libretto is substantially less obtrusive than last time. Credit for this also
goes to Benedict Nelson, a singer new to the production, who fields Belcore’s
colloquialisms around ‘knuckle sandwiches’ and ‘meatheads’ with idiomatic nonchalance.
As the G.I. who attempts to woo Adina via the modern equivalent of throwing her
over his shoulder and striding off into the sunset, Nelson certainly walks the
walk. Last seen wearing a different kind
of uniform – the school variety – in ENO’s controversial A Midsummer
Night’s Dream, he is a characterful baritone of real promise, but as
yet his voice is a couple of sizes too small for this role.
Some production niggles persist: the cramped opening scene
inside Adina’s diner still makes it hard for characters to imprint their
identities, the decision to use silly voices in the “Coca-Cola barcarola” still
betrays the score, and although revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall has muted
the gurning in Miller’s ‘lavatory queue’, its sparse laughs are still cheaply
earned. Overall, though, this lipsmacking Elixir is a tonic.