L’Elisir d’amore by Gaetano Donizetti. Directed by Simon Phillips. Opera Australia. State Theatre, Melbourne, until May 12, 2001. Sydney Opera House from June 29.
As a director of opera, Melbourne Theatre Company artistic director Simon Phillips veers between competent and inspired, with his Don Giovanni for the late Victoria State Opera remaining one of the most original (and satisfying) main-stage opera productions to have graced the massive State Theatre stage. Phillips shifted the action from 17th century Andalusia to Morocco in the 1950s, and made Don Ottavio a Singing Detective-style hero. Though it might sound outlandish on paper, this most unconventional approach humanised da Ponte's Grand Guignol narrative and made for an insightful and delightful night of opera.
As you’d expect from an experienced theatre director, Phillips’ stagecraft is first rate. He has, for example, the chorus pulling its weight, dramatically speaking, in a way not seen since the national company was peaking in skills and confidence, circa 1994. But, at key moments, Phillips betrays a lack of confidence in opera itself. He tarts things up when ‘playing it straight’ would more than suffice.
Superficially, shifting the action of L’Elisir d’amore to Australia at the outbreak of the first world war is easy enough to justify, but the transplant doesn’t ‘take’, and what logic there is, underlying the decision, remains buried under a mountain of gimmickry; the intrigue dumbed down into a succession of tabloid headlines.
Jokey surtitles are de rigueur nowadays -- and “It’s great to have a smoko in the sun” is a pretty reasonable gloss of the opening chorus ‘Bel conforto al mietitore’ -- but when the opening bars of the opera’s best first act aria ‘Quanto e bella’ are rendered inaudible thanks to howls of laughter at the ‘She’s an absolute corker’ surtitle, it’s hard not to be put out.
Okay, one abandons all hope of subtlety once the Sid Nolan-inspired curtain lifts to reveal a crinkle-cut set of corrugated iron hills painted in the colours of the Ken Done rainbow, but does romantic logic have to be jettisoned too? (Even the lowliest of musicals is expected to make some kind of sense!) This production doesn’t establish exactly who the heroine is, let alone what she wants and doesn’t want. And that’s a crucial flaw.
It’s unlikely than anyone walked away from the first performance guessing that Adina was, in fact, part of the squattocracy: rich, independent and well-read. She’s outfitted in a pretty (but battered) iris-coloured long dress, when she rides in on her corrugated-iron horse, but she might as well be an Aussie Zerlina -- some kind of peasant soubrette -- so little is she differentiated from the other country sheilas. (She eventually appear in jodhpurs, but way too late.)
Ironically enough, Phillips’ decision to make Coca Cola the elixir of the opera’s title is one of this productions more sensible and easily justified! (Coke first appeared in Australia, according to the director, just prior to the great war.)
But the thing, finally, that dooms this production to the twilight-zone of partial success is that it doesn’t go all the way. It raises our expectations then dashes them. With L’Elisir set in Australia, singing in Italian becomes problematic… unless the setting is an internment camp. Likewise, having an Italianate tenor anti-hero (the half-pint Jose Carreras, Jorge Lopez-Yanez, as dolt farmer who loves the rich girlie, Nemorino) in the midst of a gloriously Anglo cast suddenly begs explanation. (Call him ‘Merino’ fer cryin’ out loud!) Perhaps parts of Mark Lamprell’s auto-biographical film ‘My Mother Frank’ could have been co-opted here.
At the risk of sounding petty, Phillips’ production aims high, but not high enough.
Yet there is a scene midway through the second act in which magic happens. Set in a chook shed, under a corrugated crescent moon, the slack-jawed yokels learn that Nemorino is about to inherit a fortune. It is a moment of breathtaking simplicity and sincerity. This is a glimpse of the director’s potential and his ability to elicit engaging performances from one and all.
Musically, this production is unassailable. Amelia Farrugia might be boxing above her vocal weight as Adina, but her winsome charm more than compensates for any lightness of voice, corrugated vibrato and occasional waywardness of intonation. Sometime bullfighter (no kidding) Lopez-Yanez is infinitely more impressive as Nemorino than he was as La Traviata’s boytoy, Alfredo, a few weeks back. Jeffrey Black eats up the role of Belcore in eager gulps. (He lacks only a twirlable mustache!) And Conal Coad sounds better than he looks as the snake-oil salesman and carny, Dulcamara.
In the pit, Julia Jones provides clear and vibrant leadership, and exacts a mighty performance from the State Orchestra of Victoria.
If all else fails, you can shut your eyes.
This review was published in the April 28-29 2001 edition of the Australian Financial Review.