Review: The Elixir of Love

First published in the Guardian on 25 September, 2016

The Elixir of Love
Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling

It took Donizetti a fortnight to write The Elixir of Love: bish, bash, bel canto gold. Fair enough that plot doesn’t stray from default 1830s farce. Poor and hapless Nemorino loves the rich and beautiful Adina and, inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde, spends his last pennies on a phoney love potion hoping it will work the magic for him. Along come classic twists and caricatures (smug sergeant, quack doctor, sudden death of wealthy uncle) but the music bubbles with such effervescent fluency and cuts the comic fizz with such charming sentimentality that, done right, we should believe that these characters actually posses emotional depths. Sure, Adina regresses from free-loving independent spirit to predictably dependent creature, but she does so with such candid and tender song that it seems she really must be in love.

Scottish Opera’s new mini production is just about witty and charismatic enough to lift the comedy off the page, but only just. This is the company’s annual autumn tour, roaming about to places that specifically aren’t Edinburgh or Glasgow and this year bulked up from piano accompaniment to a hard-working pit band of five. Derek Clark has rearranged Donizetti’s orchestral score for string trio, horn and guitar and the sound works nicely — lithe and sinewy sustain from the strings, warmth from the horn, rhythmic pep from the guitar. Stuart Stratford conducts with a fine ear for gracious phrasing and a lot of space to let the singers play with their lines.

And play they do, up to a point. If you’re longing to see Scottish Opera do something bold or gritty or subversive now is still not your moment, not unless you consider a reference to Scotland’s favourite tonic wine as daring social comment or big blokes teetering in small dresses as wildly risqué. Oliver Platt’s production is a PG Wodehouse-era romp and it’s low-key, low-risk, low-impact. I was reminded of how much not very good Gilbert and Sullivan the company has staged recently, especially with Kelley Rourke’s doggerel English translation (Adina/ see her/ faster) and Toby Girling overplaying Belcore as the cardboard bumbling sergeant, curly moustache painted on. Slightly forced hilarity in ensemble scenes looks more fun for those on stage than off.

But there are some fine turns, particularly from soprano Ellie Laugharne whose Adina is breezy and warmhearted, a natural for comic timing, a genuinely magnetic stage presence and a creamy and nimble voice. None of the rest of the cast matches her (unfortunately she blows Elgan Llyr Thomas’s sweet-but-wet Nemorino out of the water) but James Cleverton comes closest as the wacko doc Dulcamara and the pair astutely use their Act II duo to do some mild flirting. Besides a couple of thrusting motions and a passing mention of vaginal sagging, that’s about as bawdy as it gets. I don’t suppose Donizetti’s original Milan audience would have stuck around for five minutes.

Touring until October 29