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Doctor Love

04/13/2002 -   and 17, 19, 25, 27, 30 April, 2, 4 May 2002
Gaetano Donizetti: The elixir of love

Rhys Meirion (Nemorino), Alison Roddy/Louise Walsh (Adina), Andrew Shore (Dulcamara), Ashley Holland (Belcore), Sally Harrison (Gianetta)

Michael Lloyd (conductor), Jude Kelly (director)

ENO Orchestra and Chorus

At the beginning of The elixir of love, the slightly superior soprano Adina reads the story of Tristan and Isolde to her harvesters (office co-workers in this production). But this is almost twenty years before Wagner, and the tale is simply an example of the power of love and a chance to dream of love of overwhelming power. By the end of the opera, Adina has discovered that the village gornisht tenor Nemorino loves her with such overwhelming power that he is willing to risk death in the military to win her, and she finally responds, rejecting the thug baritone Belcore in the process. The discovery is helped along by the bricoleur Dulcamara, who, like the Wizard of Oz, gives people what they have already but makes them believe it. Donizetti's opera is essentially a particularly well made example of a light romantic opera, a semi-pastoral precursor of the boy-girl misunderstandings of operetta and musical, but there is fun and wit in it, and love is always acceptable.

Jude Kelly's production, revived at the ENO, seems to aim for something more serious. The setting is a town in a generic but suspiciously Albanian-looking Communist block country perhaps in the 1950s, Adina is the mayor's secretary, Nemorino is the Norman Wisdomish post-boy in the town hall and Belcore is perhaps a secret policeman as well as a soldier. Everything except the red military flags is grey or greyish, and the sense of the countryside is lost. The chorus still seems blandly cheerful, as good workers in a socialist paradise should. Everything depends on Nemorino and Adina for human warmth, and Dulcamara for colour. At the end, as well as the triumph of love, a monumental statue that looks like Stalin from the neck down is blown up, suggesting that everything has changed, which puts a huge burden on the performers to justify the change.

Unfortunately, the nasty that got Sophie Daneman before the Handel concert in the week also claimed Alison Roddy. She acted the role while Louise Walsh sang, extremely well, from the side of the stage. The personal and musical interactions between Roddy and Rhys Meirion as Nemorino was perhaps inevitably a bit remote. Meirion didn't look gormless enough and he had some hard-edged moments, but much of his singing was beautiful in a rather old-fashioned, Kenneth-MacKellarish, way. "Una furtiva lagrima" was inevitably a winner. Ashley Holland was mildly unpleasant and sinister but not particularly blusterous as Belcore.

Andrew Shore as Dulcamara, though, delivered superbly. Many Dulcamaras get by with bland jollity, but Shore, exuding fraudulence, seemed at times stunned by the effectiveness of his tricks. He had a silent but adoring wife in tow, who enhanced enormously his credentials as a bringer of love. Almost every word of his jawbreaking lyrics came over clearly.

This is certainly a defensible production, bringing home aspects of the opera that we might forget today, like the consequences of Nemorino's enlistment and the general small-mindedness of the setting. But somehow the greyness of the set infects the music and blunts the expressiveness of the singing. It might have been better set in 1989, but then the production would have had to introduce real politics when the opera is about love between not quite ordinary people.

H.E. Elsom



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