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The Elixir of Love

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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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.

- Mark Valencia


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