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The Charm of the Outback

State Theatre
11/21/2015 -  & November 24*, 26, 28, 2015
Gaetano Donizetti: L’elisir d’amore
Rachelle Durkin (Adina), Aldo di Toro (Nemorino), Christopher Hillier (Belcore), Conal Coad (Dulcamara), Eva Kong (Gianetta)
Opera Australia Chorus, Thomas Johnson (Acting Chorus Master), Brian Castles-Onion (Fortepiano), Orchestra Victoria, Benjamin Northey (Conductor)
Simon Phillips (Director), Matthew Barclay (Revival Director), Michael Scott-Mitchell (Set Designer), Gabriela Tylesova (Costume Designer), Nick Schlieper (Lighting Designer)

(© Jeff Busby)

Is Rachelle Durkin one of the funniest performers in opera today? Quite possibly so. Following her hilarious performance as Norina in Don Pasquale this time last year, we receive another gift of comedy from her highly-amusing Adina in the revival production of Opera Australia’s The Elixir of Love. From her opening scene as bookish, be-spectacled spinster, to her “bothered and bewildered” ingénue, to her frenzied jealousy of Nemorino’s success with the ladies, Ms Durkin keeps the laughs coming at quick-fire pace. She has a perfect sense of comic timing: aiming a “death stare” glance at the other girls; deftly disentangling Belcore’s wandering hands from her bodice; petting the tin cut-out horses; and most successful of all, when she and Conal Coad as Dulcamara bounce glib “one-liners” off one another in their patter duet from the second act. Certainly Simon Phillips’ clever adaptation of the libretto into broad Australian farmyard slang for the surtitles gave every opportunity to lark about on the stage, but Ms Durkin missed not a single chance to play this character for laughs and it paid off with a hugely successful romp through Donizetti and Romani’s opera comica.

The production “updates” and relocates the action to an Outback Australian sheep property around 1915. The soldiers are recruiters who roamed small towns calling for volunteers to serve King and country in World War 1; the townsfolk including Nemorino are workers on the farm; the settings include the sheep-shearing yard, the milking shed and chicken coop; and the overall effect is a marvellously funny bucolic yarn. Michael Scott-Mitchell has created a superbly evocative set out of corrugated tin sheets. Distant hills on which we see the approaching military and wandering sheep dogs are corrugated tin. So too are the fields of wheat ready for harvesting and the herd of sheep awaiting shearing. The cavalry horses, Dulcamara’s battered old truck and even the birds perched on the telegraph wires are tin cut-out cartoons but the joke never wears thin. The colours of the production are vivid Outback reds, yellows and blues and we have no problem at all imagining the belting sunlight which bathes most of the show. The sheep are shorn and their tin cut-out fleeces hung over the fence; the windmill at the back of the set just keeps turning throughout and in the final scene a tin cut-out moon lights a brilliant final scene set in the chicken coop.

Designer Gabriela Tylesova’s costumes for this production are deceptively simple Edwardian dresses and military uniforms. Adina and the local girls wear outfits hand painted in the colours of the landscape and sky which perfectly compliment the set. Dulcamara’s outrageous mauve suit is a logical extension of his canary yellow truck and Nemorino’s simple farm worker outfit is a clever foil to the elegant uniforms of the soldiers.

Aldo di Toro’s Nemorino is sure of voice and radiates great warmth. We are drawn to his depiction of the naive bumpkin and delighted when he “gets the girl”. Mr di Toro’s voice is flexible and confident. He has a strong upper register used to outstanding effect in Una furtive lagrima and an easy transition to the lower reach. The audience reaction to his performance was very enthusiastic and he was rewarded with gusto at the curtain calls.

As in Don Pasquale, Rachelle Durkin is paired with Conal Coad, a veteran of this company and an accomplished artist with an enviable career locally and abroad. Mr Coad is the perfect bel canto comedy bad guy. His Dulcamara is the sleaziest snake oil salesman, the smoothest operator and a dab foot at a tricky little dance routine. The duet from the second act was a show-stopper and despite all his pantomime villain antics, Mr Coad ensures that his character remains endearing throughout.

Christopher Hillier’s Belcore was expertly delivered. Great comic timing, richly hued vocals and a good dose of swaggering military macho made this character a perfect foil for the others and a suitable contrast to a very unsophisticated Nemorino.

Under Benjamin Northey, Orchestra Victoria and the Opera Australia Chorus sounded wonderful. They produced a balanced and assured support which allowed the on-stage antics to lead the show.

Like other recent OA productions, this is a particularly beautiful visual composition. Not a minute of seriousness in it to be sure but gorgeous to look at and constantly amusing. In a situation where timing is everything, the laughter just kept rolling on and the whole show flew past in what seemed like minutes. Far from feeling like a revival, this show is fresh, bright and worthy of a much-loved place in the company repertoire.

Gregory Pritchard



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