Corrugated rolling hills and horses, with plenty of cows, sheep, sheilas and galahs, bang on cue Opera Australia opened its Melbourne season of the already popular Elixir of Love* at the State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Saturday 21st November, 2015.
Judging from the happy chuckling coming from my youngest son, who afterwards posted the show was ‘excellent’ on facebook to his brothers, with incredible singing; it more than stuck ‘like a dag to a sheep’.
As a happy Opera experience for him it certainly went down a treat, at least providing an alternative to the ‘pretty girl’ first up opera love experience for ladies La Traviata, one whose offbeat humour certainly appealed to my ‘true blue’ Aussie bloke.
Nemorino is a lovesick farm labourer in love with the wealthy local squatter’s daughter Adina, who is wooed by the vain English army Sergeant Belcore.
Then there is Dr. Dulcamara, a mountebank who uses the public platform to espouse his own abilities and perform ‘cures’ in a type of ‘carnival’ act.
He snares Nemorino with a promise: drink the elixir of love and Adina will, within one day fall in love with him.
Does this strange elixir really work?
Yes, and it is all part of a grand plan by Opera Australia under the able direction of Lyndon Terracini to ensure operas like The Elixir of Love, (L’elisir d’Amore) with music by Gaetano Donizetti from a Libretto by Felice Romani performed in Italian with English supertitles, not only survive but thrive ‘down under’.
Donizetti is best known for his opera buffa, or comedic operas, which can be manipulated with hilarious results.
Transposing an eighteenth century Italian country farce to the Edwardian period in the Australian outback may seem like a strange thing to do but it works a treat.
All art is relevant to its time. In Elixir of Love the music by Donizetti is definitely Italian in flavour, however the brilliance of the clever creative corrugated iron set, complete with witty and wonderful sub text by director and translator Simon Phillips, who peppers the script with dinky di Aussie slang, bravo Opera Australia you presented a ‘humdinger’ of a show.
Added to that what was the icing on the cake for the first night audience, is that the ‘elixir’ itself turned out to be Coca Cola in the old traditional bottle.
It is ingeniously housed in such a great big red fridge one would think Opera Australia would be able to manufacture it, sell it to fans and make a motza
Set Designer Michael Scott-Mitchel has done a simply amazing job. His set is ingenious and wonderfully innovative.
Made entirely from corrugated iron and lit by Nick Schlieper, who highlights its rippling effect and all the action superbly, it’s hard to know where to look there is so much going on.
The menagerie of animals from nodding baaing sheep whose fleece is able to be ‘shorn’ by the hero of the piece Nemorino (Aldo di Toro) to cows that moo on cue, and horses that gallop onto the stage, this Elixir of Love comes splendidly arrayed in the down to earth colours of the Australian outback.
The main characters; Nemorino, the lovestruck labourer tenor Aldo Di Toro, Adina an endearing ‘squatter’s daughter soprano Rachelle Durkin, Belcore the narcissistic army officer baritone Christopher Hillier, Giannetta the town gossip girlfriend of Adina, soprano Eva Kong, and bass singer and comic master of his craft Conal Coad as Dulcamara, the mountebank with a cure all elixir.
They are all wonderfully accompanied by Orchestra Victoria conducted by Benjamin Northey.
As the show opens Adina is picnicking in the countryside and what we notice is that it is very crowded, with 30+ members of the Opera Australia chorus on hand to ensure we all have a good time.
Acclaimed ward winning, international costume designer Gabriela Tylesova, who has had such a hit with her glorious costumes for the Australian Ballet’s new production of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ recently.
She puts our heroine Adina and her best friend Gianetta in fabulous hand painted frocks that any stylish girl would stampede into Myers emporium in Melbourne to purchase.
First performed in Milan in 1832 the Elixir of Love proved an instant success. What a romp!
The heroine is a lady who is both rich and beautiful. Rachelle Durkin is the perfect choice, not only for her purity of tone, but also for her flexibility and fabulous stagecraft.
Looking demure in a dress or dashing about looking delicious in jodphurs, this talented Australian born coloratura soprano whose body language beckons you to join her on stage, sings regularly with The Metropolitan Opera in New York.
To boot, she can also mount a horse with great style. She sings the role of Adina to perfection, with her sweet honeyed mature voice now revealing greater depth and wonderful warm round tones.
Durkin has been singing internationally since winning three major vocal competitions in Australia in 2000, and today her extensive repertoire includes works from the Baroque style to modernity.
The audience loved her whether hopping on and off her corrugated horse, or cooped up in a chicken wire meshed pen, eating her heart out for the man she finally realises at the end, she loves.
Wearing her heart entirely on her sleeve so to speak, her final aria Prendi, per me sei libero too was all delight.
Aldo di Toro as Nemorino ‘the little nobody’, has a rock solid voice, which took a little time to warm up but when it did proved to be robust, resonant and generous.
He has a true Italian lyrical tenor voice, which rings out resonating with crystal clear high notes, especially when singing so movingly the opera’s well-known aria in the second act, ‘Una furtive lagrima’ (a furtive tear), a favourite of the former internationally adored tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
An opera in the ‘bel canto’ (beautiful music) style, Elixir of Love is all about showcasing the voice, and often the accompaniment is quite simple.
A favourite aria a highlight of the first act, Donizetti’s Della crudele Isotta, which as an instrumental piece was waltzed to by Rupert Friend and Emily Blunt so beautifully in the movie Young Victoria, always transports me to another time and place.
Conal Coad was as irrepressible as ever, his light hearted roguish role as Dulcamara the ‘quack’ selling pills and potions from his fabulously tricked up corrugated bright yellow truck, had everyone rolling in the aisles!
He’s a master of comedic opera, and he and Durkin have such a great rapport, their few turns together turn out to be a real treat.
Christopher Hillier as Belcore and Eva Kong as Giannetta were the perfect foil for both Nemorino and Adina.
Once a jolly doctor
rode into a country town
Handing out potions
and pills for a fee
And he sang as the soldiers
and gentle folk all gathered round
Who’ll come a-wooing Adina with me?*
Opera Australia’s The Elixir of Love provides a perfect night out for both newcomers and aficionados of the opera alike.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
November 21 – 28, 2015
Watch the Trailer
*All images and quote courtesy Opera Australia