Theatre Royal, Glasgow
As opera plots go, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is ostensibly unremarkable. The beautiful Adina is in love with the awkward Nemorino. We know from the outset they’re going to end up living happily ever after, but not before a quack doctor (Dulcamara) and military chancer (Belcore) delay the ultimate rapprochement with their risible delay tactics.
Thankfully there’s Donizetti’s music to make the two-hour journey worthwhile, an almost uninterrupted torrent of great tunes that give substance to the make-believe, tolerance to the silliness, and a reason why this opera remains so enjoyable nearly 200 years after it premiered in 1832.
L’elisir has played a memorable part in Scottish Opera’s history – a 1984 production famously using a 1930s’ Fiat 500 nicknamed Topolino as the vehicle of choice for Dulcamara’s triumphant entrance – and is back with the company once again, in partnership with Perth Festival, this time in a filmed stage production cognisant of Covid times, and directed by Roxana Haines who has been a creative beacon for the company during the past year.
Except that this production doesn’t quite set the heather alight. It’s handicapped for a start by the necessary confinement of the chorus to darkened seats in the audience stalls. Their presence should provide the visible buzz and spectacle in this Donizetti. It’s sorely missed.
That leaves us with the skeleton human interplay between the 5-strong solo cast and a permanent set of piecemeal trellis, scattered seating and fortepiano, the latter fulfilling a dual purpose of recitative accompaniment and stage prop, facilitated by the mute actor/pianist presence of Erika Gundesen.
Dynamic interaction is hampered by the need to keep distanced. Portrayals turn either to awkwardness or caricature.
So it’s back to the singing, and here we have something to shout about. All credit to a cast of mainly Scottish Opera Emerging Artists, one Royal Scottish Conservatoire student and the well-seasoned Roland Wood.
From his opening aria, Chinese tenor Shengzhi Ren (ironic to have a Chinese singer cast as an Italian in the wake of Scottish Opera’s chastisement for casting westerners as Chinese in their production Nixon in China which they subsequently pulled last week from the South Bank Sky Arts Awards) finds fire and soul in the music of Nemorino, fearless in the topmost range, warm and emotive, with only a hint of fatigue midway that disappears as quickly as it arrives.
Catriona Hewitson cuts a formidable foil, just as intense in her vocal performance, from the tenderest sighs to the headiest effusions, often with a hint of mischievous. Arthur Bruce captures the stereotypical pomposity of Belcore, adding a vocal performance that is richly expressive and characterful. RCS student Elena Garrido Madrona looks and sings permanently perky as the frenetic Gianetta.
If stage experience shows, it’s in Roland Wood’s charismatic portrayal of Dulcamara. Compelling at every level, resonant and versatile of voice, his is a characterisation you can’t fail to believe in. He lights up this production.
There is fine playing, too, from Scottish Opera Orchestra, under the baton of music director Stuart Stratford and positioned rear stage behind the main action, a result of which is a glowing representation of Donizetti’s score, indeed moments where unexpected gems of orchestration are revealed to surprising beauty and effect.
Indeed, it’s the music that carries this production; it’s not a complete theatrical triumph. Could it be that we’ve just reached saturation point where online streaming is concerned? I suspect Scottish Opera’s next production, Verdi’s Falstaff to live audiences, will help us answer that.
Available to view at www.scottishopera.org.uk
In partnership with Perth Festival of the Arts