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L’elisir d’amore: An intoxicating elixir

An intoxicating elixir

L’elisir d’amore
New Zealand Opera
Until Saturday, 30 June

Donizetti’s opera L’elisir d’amore (translated for this production as The Elixir of Love) is a comedy classic: the story of a young man who, through the help of a charlatan medicine salesman and his dubious ‘elixir’, seeks to win the woman of his dreams. And it’s had a delightfully well-judged updating in this New Zealand Opera production, based on a recent Ocker remodelling.

The setting is small town Australia, a world swept by the fever of the First World War. And the designers have gone all out on the corrugated iron. There are golden corrugated iron hills, corrugated iron horses, corrugated iron dogs, corrugated iron flowers and food. It’s all deliberately non-realistic – hallucinatory, even – and is very well done.

It’s also a very funny production, as you would hope. There are visual gags playing on perspective, jokes about reading the subtitles, all kinds of comic business. The costumes, too, are beautifully done: the snake oil salesman Dulcamara sports a fetching yellow and pink combination at one point, not to mention a lurid purple suit that the Joker wouldn’t have considered beneath him.

Unquestionably the star of the show are the young New Zealand wife-and-husband couple Amina Edris and Pene Pati, in the lead roles of Adina and Nemorino. These are two tremendously exciting young singers who also – and this is a rarity – have rich, expressive stage personalities. Edris’s voice, supple and subtle, was a constant delight, both sweetly flowing and attentive to nuances. Pati also has a striking and powerful voice; he stamped his mark on the set piece aria, Una Furtiva Lagrima, making it sound fresh and tender. His voice doesn’t perhaps yet have quite the full sonority and roundedness of the great tenors – but the fact that that’s even the comparison that springs to mind is significant. He is also a wonderful, wonderful, comic actor.

I was fractionally less convinced by Edris’s acting. Not that she isn’t capable of it; more that there were too many different variations. As the programme noted, you can play Adina as either a feminist heroine controlling her own destiny or a manipulative piece of work. Edris seemed to veer from one to the other.

That’s not to say that you can’t have variety in your characterisation: people are complex, after all. But if there are going to be sharply different moods portrayed, some line has to run through them all. There needs to be shading between them, and the audience needs to feel taken on that journey; I at least didn’t. But she obviously has – they both have – huge acting potential, to go with vocal talent. I hope we get to see them soon in one of the big tragedies.

Minor defects in the acting weren’t a major issue, anyway. It was such a fantastic production. Conal Coad as Dulcamara was a hoot, and Morgan Pearse as Belcore a suitably silly – and just-irritating-enough – presence. The chorus sounded wonderful, as they invariably do, and Orchestra Wellington’s accompaniment was spot-on, especially in the quieter moments.
I left the Opera House with a head full of bright, dancing images – the almost surreal colour of the set, the invention and humour throughout, the clever use of chickenwire contraptions to shift the dynamics of the centre stage – and with the memory of some superb singing and a wonderful evening’s entertainment.

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