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.
This review was originally published by Leeds Student newspaper here
I am not directly involved with the University or Union and only knew
about the production because someone was handing out flyers outside
the Grand when I was there a couple of weeks ago to see Opera North in
The Girl of the Golden West. I looked it up on the website and decided
it sounded worth seeing/hearing - and it was.
I don't know if there were others to came to see it as a result of the
flyer, but I am glad that I received it.
I saw the Elixir at the end of last year at the Royal Northern College
of Music - their student singers have all sorts of specialist whizzkid
scholarships, it was a college production by students on the verge of
professional careers, they have far more resources than you do, I am
sure, a much bigger and posher theatre and there was clearly a lot of
non-student involvement - director, producer, conductor and so on were
staff or professionals - they have lighting experts, language coaches
and all the paraphernalia of a big professional opera company- and
yes, it was very well done and I did enjoy it - I am not particularly
knowledgeable or musically educated by I enjoyed it more than a lot of
professional productions like Covent Garden or the New York Met (I
only see them in the cinema as relays) because of the enthusiasm and
passion of the performers, and the lack of star posturing.
But I enjoyed what I saw tonight even more than that - and anyway I
don't see the need to compare the two productions - both were
extremely good - so I am going to stop comparing - I just wanted to
say that I enjoyed the OperaSoc one more.
I liked your take on the opera - it was fresh and I thought it worked
well - it was an interesting approach to have them as students.
The chorus were very lively, they sang and acted well - there were
some quite funny touches from one or two of them.
All the singers in the principal roles acted and sang very well. To
me, they all had nice voices and they sang with passion and
conviction. I suppose you would expect that from musicians/music
students and I see that the three males singers are studying music, (though Calum Macgregor, according to the programme, has not sung in
opera before)and so must have had some training, I expect. The two
young women aren't music students.
I thought Sarah Calvert had a really nice voice ( I have already said
that I thought all the singers had) and sang very well. It is a
slightly odd role because she seems a bit of dark horse and even
rather cruel in the way she behaves - Sarah acted it with innocence
and she was believable. She sang her arias well.
Annalise Hughes who played Gianetta was lively and sang her part very
clearly and well.
But I think this particular opera favours the male singers more in the
parts that were written for them.
Sam McCagherty has a good strong voice and sang and acted the part of
the conman in a very mature way. The duet with Adina was done very
well by both of them. He was an entirely believable Dulcamara and also
played him in quite a sympathetic and likeable way.
Kyle Harrison-Pope also played Belcore in a likeable way, - I had
always thought he was a bit of a pompous, self- preening, vain,
bullying bastard - not Kyle himself, I hasten to add, (I am sure he is
not, but I do not know him) the character, I mean, but there was quite
an ambiguous air about the way Kyle played him - that made it more
interesting than just a sort of thick, womanising soldier - Belcore's
presence on stage was powerful and attractive, and he wasn't someone
you were able to dislike, so that made an interesting balance with
Nemorino - such that Adina is not just flirting with Belcore to
provoke Nemorino but is also drawn to Belcore - and one can see why.
The singer has a powerful voice and he sang in a masterly way. It was
a very exciting and powerful performance from a young man.
It was also a powerful performance from Calum Macgregor. He really
does have a beautiful voice, very lyrical and very passionate voice. I
liked the idea of his being a bit of a nerd - and it was very
interesting that Adina really starts to want him when he is fancied by
all the young women and at that point turns into someone to rival
Belcore in his appeal. He acted it well and I thought he sang his part
with real feeling - the duet between him and Belcore was, I think, the
first time the audience allowed itself to clap, and rightly so, I
Yes all in all, it was done with real feeling and commitment. I
haven't mentioned the orchestra, but they were essential of course and
played really well. And I know lots of other people put work into it:
the result was a performance/production that was really worth coming
to see. I was very impressed, but more importantly I wasn't bored -
quite often at professional performances I think, oh yes this is no
doubt of the highest standard, but there is no spark. There were
plenty of sparks tonight.