Blackheath Community Opera at Blackheath Halls
Following Gluck’s Orpheus last Summer, Blackheath Halls took on the perils of bel canto this year, with a production of Donizetti’s ingenious comedy The Elixir of Love, once again combining professional and amateur performers.
It proved a perfect vehicle for the chorus and orchestra drawn from the locality and a top-notch quintet of solo vocalists.
Elena Xanthoudakis was the flighty Adina, confidently spinning out the coloratura like a bird in flight, Nicholas Sharratt an ardent Nemorino, the simple village lad in love with her, while Grant Doyle blustered and swaggered as the over-weening Belcore.
Helen Bailey, currently doing post-grad studies at the Royal Academy, was a chirpily attractive Giannetta and Robert Poulton, displaying a wealth of experience and showmanship, was the spiv Dulcamara, dispensing his dodgy mixtures on the unaware and snaffling wedding presents when no-one was looking.
But what makes Blackheath Halls Community Opera so special is the involvement of a mass of local talent of all ages, here superbly deployed as villagers and orchestra.
Recent productions of the opera at Covent Garden and English National Opera updated the action of Donizetti’s 1832 opera to 1950s Italy and America respectively, while here director Harry Fehr and designer Emma Wee put it right in our own back yard. Setting it a decade earlier, we were in an entirely apt England in the grips of war-time austerity.
Performed in the round, or on three sides at least with the orchestra making up the fourth, the production brought everything up close (sitting in the front row, you could almost end up with a land girl or farmhand in your lap), with banks of tables and benches constantly on the move and a really evocative sense of the period.
A member of the chorus told me that Fehr knew each of their names and this impressive, personal approach led to a riveting engagement from each and every participant, with a wealth of detail in the crowd scenes. Home guard oldsters mixed with nubile young beauties, eager for the attentions of the US military, while ladies (a little) older sat in a knitting circle making their contribution to the war effort.
Costume Supervisors Libby Blogg and Nicola Namdjou came up with a dazzling array of costume changes. My grandma might have tutted at the range of cakes and tarts in the wedding scene, somehow conjured up in the war-time absence of basic cooking materials, but the children were less concerned with historical accuracy as they eagerly fell upon them at the end of the curtain call.
Nicholas Jenkins conducted a confident and able band of amateur players, with a gorgeous solo bassoon during Nemorino’s third act aria (“Una furtive lagrima”) deserving special mention.
But it’s the infectious enthusiasm of the whole that hit the strongest. The cast looked as though they were having a ball and the audience were too. It was another triumph for Blackheath’s annual community event - roll on next year.