Golden summers: Opera Australia’s The Elixir of Love

“Once a jolly doctor rode into a country town
Handing out potions and pills for a fee
And he sang as the soldiers and gentlefolk all gathered ‘round
Who’ll come a-wooing Adina with me?”

You could say that Australia grew up on the sheep’s back. The pastoral dream of an idyllic Arden beyond the cities and town centres persisted until relatively recently – ‘over the hills and far away’ was where the pastures and grazing land were, where the romance of an unhurried lifestyle lived on and off the land was tantalising. Dorothy McKellar wrote “I love a sunburnt country,” and not so long ago the same could be said for many people. In Simon Phillips’ production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love for Opera Australia, we are transported to the summer of 1915, a country town beyond the mountains, when the Heidelberg School’s vision of golden summers was still conceivable; an Arcadian moment on the cusp of the “imminent loss of innocence.”

First staged for Opera Australia in 2001 (and revived in 2006), Phillips’ Elixir of Love is an echo of Percy Grainger’s catchy and sugary folk-song confections. The set, designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell, is a cornucopia of corrugated iron. Rolling hills crest into the distance, while fields of wheat sustain flocks of sheep; a cowshed and chicken-coop in the second act have barely a horizontal line between them, all larger than life and cartoonishly angled, but their effect is beguiling, dazzling; enchanting. When coupled with Gabriela Tylesova’s costumes – seemingly ripped straight from the frames of the Australian Impressionists; McCubbin, Streeton, Roberts, Fox, Bunny – in rich earthy colours adorned with brushstrokes and impressionistic dabs of paint, the picturesque idyll is almost complete. All that remains are the singers, who exude a warmth and sweetness which could so easily turn sickly and saccharine in another’s hands. Nick Schlieper’s lighting completes the illusion, painting the stage in the rich tones of an artists’ palette without diluting Scott-Mitchell and Tylesova’s designs, further heightening the opera-buffa tone of Donizetti and Phillips’ creation.
The story of shepherd Nemorino (Aldo di Toro) who falls in love with the well-off Adina (Rachelle Durkin), The Elixir of Love is as musically delightful as it is narratively silly; Donizetti’s music bubbles and fizzes and Phillips’ staging more than matches its potential for comic business, moments of buffoonery and inspired flourishes. While Adina is engaged to marry the army sergeant Belcore (Samuel Dundas), the itinerant quack-doctor Dulcamara (Conal Coad) comes to town and gives Nemorino the elixir of love he has heard of. ‘Just one sip,’ he is told, ‘and the ladies will be all over you.’ Like the other masters of comic operetta Gilbert & Sullivan, there is something endearing and charming about Elixir, in the way it is told, sung; staged. There are no villains, only societal constraints, no true adversary except money and narrow-mindedness; even Dulcamara is loveable in his own way.
The leads are all strong, their voices clear and colourful. The chorus too; although there are moments when their diction is less clear, the sound is not. Rachelle Durkin’s Adina is spirited and feisty, more than a match for Samuel Dundas’ Belcore. While she is distracted momentarily by Belcore’s uniform and charm (as he believes), she is still aware of Nemorino, still wishes she could see him, and when she finally does see him again on her wedding night, before the papers are signed, she knows he is who she’s been looking for all along. Aldo di Toro’s Nemorino is a kind of Everyman, an honest and loveable shepherd who dreams of the kind of love that can perhaps only exist in stories. As Phillips says, “it’s imperative he wins us over with sincerity and charm,” and di Toro more than certainly does. Dundas’ Belcore is an unswerving man who will not take no for an answer, in many ways everything Nemorino is not. Conal Coad’s Dulcamara is every bit as sly and charming as travelling salesman often are, and his rapid-fire diction and business means a song never passes without an element of showmanship and theatricality. Katherine Wiles as Adina’s friend Giannetta is bright and sunny, and the scene where she leads the town’s women on a nocturnal sortie to entrap the affections of Nemorino (hiding in the chicken coop) is charming and eversoslightly silly.
There is much to love in Phillips’ production – from the opening moments when Adina arrives on her (corrugated-iron horse), to Nemorino’s shearing of the (corrugated-iron) sheep, to the arrival of Dulcamara and the elixir revealed as nothing more than Coca-Cola, to the wedding feast (in the cowshed with corrugated-iron cows in attendance), right through to its inevitable end – and his surtitles, Australianised, but (incredibly!) managing to stay on the charming side of cringeworthiness, are spot-on and fit the mood perfectly. To quote Phillips, “it’s bright, it’s bucolic, [and] a barrel of laughs.” Ultimately set upon the very stage on which it unfolds, this Elixir of Love positively sparkles and crackles with a diffused wit and gentle warmth that is incredibly hard not to Enjoy.

Theatre playlist: 52. Shepherd’s hey, Percy Grainger

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