Donizetti: The Elixir of Love

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 17 September 2011 4.5 stars

Sarah Tynan as Adina (Photo © Tristram KentonDonizetti's 1832 rom-com – a tale of rustic lovesickness cured (perhaps) by the wares of a fast-talking witch doctor – has long established itself as one of the most popular and frequently performed of his operas. In Jonathan Miller's attractive production, revived here for the first time after its premiere in 2010, there's not an Italian peasant for miles around. Instead Isabella Bywater's set takes us to 1950s dustbowl America: its inhabitants are denim-clad greasemonkeys and blow-dried baby dolls in sunbleached cotton; the leading lady's estate not a farm but a neon-lit, leatherette-furnished Adina's Diner, which rotates for each scene change against a cow-speckled prairie backdrop. You can almost hear the tumbleweed – at least until Dr Dulcamara pulls up in his city-slicker suit and impressively polished quackmobile.

There's a lot to be said for the scenic transposition: not only does it play into our burgeoning love affair with pomaded 1950s/60s retro (with BBC's The Hour joining the fray alongside Mad Men since the first appearance of Miller's production) but it also smoothes over the often exaggerated difference in social rank between Adina and lovelorn Nemorino. The resulting bel-canto-in-technicolor is also great fun – particularly in this lively and suitably irreverent translation by Kelley Rourke. It's not often, after all, that you hear 'meathead' sung out – and with considerable relish – on the operatic stage.

It was, then, no bad thing that little had changed since the production's previous, critically acclaimed outing. What's more, two highlights from 2010 – Sarah Tynan's irrepressible Adina and, above all, Andrew Shore's panache-oozing dodgy Doctor – were back again, and still sparkling. Shore once more excelled in the vocal showmanship and fancy footwork of Dulcamara's sales patter, while their joint turn as Marilyn and Elvis in the Act II barcarolle ('the cigarette gal and the wealthy tycoon') had this audience charmed. But, for all that Tynan's incorporation of mid-west drawl into her light, clean soprano remained improbably successful, she was at her best towards the opera's end. As the wicked glint in Adina's eye gives way to something a little more heartfelt, the accent dropped off and Tynan's silky legato and finely etched coloratura took over to poignant effect.

In Ben Johnson's role debut as Nemorino, Shore and Tynan gained a perfect foil. Johnson managed to tread the fine line between loser and superhunk: his tenor was gloriously free across the entire register, his reading of the opera's hit aria, 'Una furtiva lagrima' (here, 'I saw a tear fall from her eye') truly luxurious. The quality of his tone more than made up for a slight loss of clarity in moments of ornamental detail in Act I, while his acting was similarly convincing, not least in his seriously consummate sulk.

Andrew Shore (Dulcamara) and Ben Johnson (Nemorino) (Photo © Tristram Kenton)Benedict Nelson's Belcore wasn't in the same league: he certainly looked the part of the GI Joe (albeit in command of a distinctly mature platoon), but had a tendency to sing under the note, and lacked the weight in his lower register to pull off the love rival's swagger. Ella Kirkpatrick was an energetic Giannetta (whether jiving with a mop, or making up a vocal quartet).

Donizetti's score contains some beautiful orchestral moments, not least the famous bassoon solo in Nemorino's Act II aria, which managed to be as honeyed and heart-stopping as one could ask. The ENO Orchestra's performance, highly spirited throughout, was led with obvious enthusiasm by Rory MacDonald. There were occasional balance issues (at least as heard from the stalls), with loud passages too often dominated by percussion, and the entire reading tending towards the symphonic. But in many ways the performance was cheering evidence of the standard that ENO, at its best, can now boast. More unusually, with its stylish combination of an imaginatively adapted libretto and visually striking designs, Miller's production makes a persuasive (and much needed) argument for the company's continued tradition of English-language performance.

By Flora Willson

Photos © Tristram Kenton