Saturday, 6 March 2010


5/3/10, Coliseum

2 hrs 25 min. Jonathan Miller's production for ENO, his first in a very long time. It originated in 2006 in New York, and revisits some of the motifs from his ENO Rigoletto, which must be 30 years old by now. This isn't set among the New York mafiosi of the 1950s, but in the American mid-West. There is however a diner and a man (actually several men) in uniform. There's also a shiny American convertible for the quack Dr Dulcamara to arrive in and a pair of petrol pumps which slide on when the diner turns on the revolve to show us its exterior rather than the inside.

Our hearts sank at the outset when ENO's casting director came on to tell us that David Kempster, the Belcore, was ill but would be performing nonetheless (if he's this good when he's ill, what's he like when he's on top form? we wondered) and furthermore that John Tessier, the Canadian star of the show as Nemorino, had a virus and couldn't sing. And nor could his understudy. Since the translation is a new one and they couldn't expect anyone to learn it from scratch, they'd decided to get a substitute who could sing it in Italian instead, a Lithuanian called Edgaras Montvidas. Uncertain laughter from the audience.

We needn't have worried. Edgaras could certainly sing. Una Furtiva Lagrima in Act 2 had the house spellbound and the audience applauding wildly. The fact that he was singing in Italian and his beloved singing in English with a dodgy American accent didn't matter at all, indicating how few of the words are audible in opera anyway (thank god for surtitles).

And the situation presented unexpected comic possibilities for Andrew Shore, who is probably very funyn as Dulcamara anyway but here excelled himself. He sang in English until his first encounter with Nemorino, when he switched to Italian (big laugh), and then in Act 2 when he explains to Nemorino (who really is exceptionally dim) that all the girls suddenly fancy him because his rich uncle has died leaving him all his dosh he sang "il morto, Uncle Joe" (really, really big laugh) (I may not have the Italian quite right there). In the programme I read afterwards an interview with Shore (who we've also seen as a mesmerising Alberich in Rhinegold) in which he said: "I've always wanted to spark a genuine laugh from the audience rather than an acknowledged titter from people who know something's supposed to be funny." I'm not sure what Donizetti and his librettist would have made of it, but on this occasion he certainly succeeded.

There was a pretty Adina in Sarah Tynan and a rather cramped set, the diner, designed by Isabella Bywater. When it revolved in Act 2 Miller had the girls queuing for the outside loo round the back after the party as they talked about Nemorino's uncle.

The plot of L'Elisir is as baffling as most operas. Why do we discover that Adina really loves Nemorino only after she's agreed to marry the sergeant purely (as she tells us) to wind Nemorino up? Why, since he's such a hopeless case, does she fancy him anyway? Isn't the sergeant going it a bit, even by the standards of the military, in proposing to Adina within minutes of their first meeting? Why does taking the elixir oneself cause the other party to fall in love with you: if they're the one whose behaviour needs to change, surely they should be the one drinking the tipple?

The music, however, is of course gloriously tuneful with tremendous drive and verve, the whole thing is over comfortably in under two and a half hours and there are some great songs.

And this translation (by Kelley Rourke) was a cracker, with Dulcamara's patter song worthy of Gilbert. I was hoping to paste a few excerpts in here, because the programme says the translations's available on the ENO website, but I can't find it.

A jolly evening made even jollier by coincidental encounters with all sorts beforehand and during the interval. A colleague, Kim, who'd come with a friend who lives at the end of our street and had one been to our house for an NCT mums' get-together; and John and Faisal, who we met on holiday in Turkey last summer. And Michael Frayn was in the audience too.

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