While Gaetano Donizetti only took some six weeks to compose his opera ‘L’elisir D’amore’, it took Opera Society’s production team much longer to transform the 19th-century classic into an accessible and enticing performance for the Riley Smith stage.
The opera tells the story of Nemorino (Calum Macgregor), a reserved Classics student, who longs to win the heart of studious bookworm, Adina (Sarah Calvert). In a desperate bid to stop Adina falling for the charms of former militant, Belcore (Kyle Harrison-Pope), Nemorino pins his hopes on drug-dealer Dulcamara (Sam McCagherty), who claims to own the eponymous mythical love potion.
While modern-day productions tend to update the setting to the 1950’s, this version opts to relocate the action to the Classics department of a modern university. But despite the translation to English, Donizetti’s original musical score remains unsullied. Indeed, the project was very much a labour of love for Musical Director, Ashley Jacobs, who put forward this particular opera to serve as the first of the society’s two annual performances and leads a superb orchestra.
There are notable moments throughout where the chorus and the leads combine their vocal abilities to create a musically impressive wall of sound. However, at times, the united strength of the chorus and orchestra threaten to mute the lyrically distinct verses of some lead characters. On these occasions, microphones would have helped in the understanding of narrative progression but generally the acoustic performance worked harmoniously.
Hair-raising solo performances were provided by Calvert’s Adina but the male leads also make an assured transition from their usual singing genre (regular theatre-goers will recognise some of them from productions by other performance societies). The pure tones of all of the experienced lead characters do well to characterise their individual performances in a way that is both striking and distinctive.
It is the chorus, however, that provides much of the magic on stage. It boasts a fairly new and inexperienced range of students from across subject disciplines and countries. The chorus is representative of the inclusive ethos of the society, with each member bringing their own individual caricature to the stage. None more so than Josh Elmore, whose surprising vocals and overly camp, scene-stealing performance provided much of the comic value whenever the band of singers appeared.
Much of the action and stage dynamic is not realised until the second half of the performance, which is much more confident and livelier than its plot-driven opener. The difficulty in delivering a solid acting performance whilst dealing with the demands of operatic vocals is evident, but it was a challenge overcome by a talented and committed cast.
One member of the production team who is more than experienced with university productions and the opera scene is second-time Director, Sally Stephens. She admits that she envisaged a “Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet-style transformation” of the much-loved opera and this is clearly realised in the cast’s modern dress and revised contextual backdrop. Despite this, the set itself was fairly minimal and would have benefitted from a more elaborate design to further realise Stephens’ vision and assist the opera’s modern-day translation.
The key theme that emerges from this production is that of transformation. From Nemorino’s growing stage presence following his pursuit of the ‘elixir’ to the confident performances of a previously inexperienced cast, the hard work and tenacity of all those involved in the transformative process of reimagining Donizetti’s masterpiece is plain for all to see. ‘The Elixir of Love’ provided a truly delightful concoction of stellar vocal performances and laugh-out-loud comic scenes which functions well as a light-hearted introduction to one of the lesser-known operas.