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Opera, Comedy & Romance at L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) at the King’s Head Theatre (until 16th March 2013)
(Review by Fiona Lister)
Sparkling, Affordable Opera For The Whole Community
Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) presented by OperaUpClose at the King’s Head Theatre is the perfect romantic tonic for lovers and non-lovers of opera. The new lighthearted English version conceived by Valentina Ceschi (Director) with a libretto by Thomas Eccleshare and new orchestration by John Gibbons has mass appeal. The original libretto was written in Italian by Felice Romani.
L’elisir d’amore is a melodrama giocoso and written as a two act opera. It was first performed in Italy in the 1830s and is one of the most popular widely performed operas. Produced by Rachel Lerman and Dominic Haddock with Rosanna Magrini (Assistant Producer) L’elisir d’amore is staged as a modern, punchy romantic comedy set in 1950s Hollywood and it bubbles over with heart and glamour. Regardless of whether or not you like opera, this is beautiful work and suitable for everyone. From the heavenly singing and sublime orchestrations to the set design, costumes and lighting, a dash of splendour has been added throughout this two-hour long production.
The King’s Head’s resident award-winning company OperaUpClose, is successfully broadening the appeal of opera to younger and older audiences. L’elisir d’amore is a glamorous, modern opera. All Off-West End theatres should take note here and add opera to their billings – the public demand for tickets is high and opera sells seats. L’elisir d’amore is fresh, heady, powerful craftsmanship and is generating huge interest, not least because of the exceptional direction by Valentina Ceschi.
L’elisir d’amore is a breath of creative fresh air. OperaUpClose has skilfully gauged what audiences love most at the moment which is the big wow factor, but they keep a careful, clever balance between classisim, romanticsm and modernism. Valentina Ceschi’s sharp direction, together with Assistant Director Marie Sennyey, makes every available use of the moderate studio space. Audiences become part of the story when the animated troupe sings in the aisles and interacts with everyone.
The first thing you notice is the stunning set and costume design by Kate Lane, and the Artistic Direction by Robin Norton-Hale is particularly wonderful. The King’s Head space is compact and staging an opera set at a 1950s poolside garden party in the height of Hollywood's Golden Age can’t be easy to achieve. The overall artistic result is one of sheer brilliance; if I had to award this musical based on set design and a clever use of space alone, I would give this 5 stars. Being a romantic, I particularly love the abundance of colourful flowers creeping up the walls, and the three-piece orchestra positioned to the side of the space gives this production a loved-up vibe. John Gibbons (Musical Director and Orchestrator) together with Lindsay Bramley (Assistant Musical Director) have created the perfect mood and delightful harmonies. The three-piece orchestra consists of: John Gibbons (Piano); Frances Higgs (Viola), and Rachael Moorhead (Saxophone). During the interval audiences are given magical glasses, which are magnificent – when you look through them into the stage lights everything turns into an abundance of twinkling hearts. I’m not sure if this was a Valentine’s Day touch but it highlighted the Cupid factor and I hope they keep the glasses. Scenery is simple but effective - martini glasses containing colourful cocktails sit on the tabletop and the swimming pool design is pure genius. The water is painted onto the back of the stage and an inflatable yellow lilo standing upright behind the actors gives an illusion of lying in the pool. Coupled with this is the brilliant lighting by Lighting Designer Benjamin Polya.
Una Reynolds steals the limelight in the role of Adina, the biggest star in Hollywood (please note that Prudence Sanders shares the role on alternate nights). Blessed with classical Hollywood film style looks of the era, Ms Reynolds gives a stellar performance as a starlet who is suffocating in a snobbish hierarchy where a star having a fling or falling in love with the pool boy is regarded by society as being disgraceful. Adina is faced with making the choice between starry-eyed Nemorino, her pool boy/gardener, or her fiancé Belcore, a solider and aspiring congressman. Una Reynolds sizzles in the role of the glamorous love-torn star. Flitting from high romance to comedy, she maintains a scintillating performance and is on stage for the majority of the opera.
Alex Vearey-Roberts played the role of Nemorino during the first opening night, a role that is portrayed on alternate nights by Alex and Philip Lee. Vearey-Roberts shines as Adina’s lovesick pool boy/gardener who is trying to write a screenplay and dreams of winning his way into Adina’s affections. Vearey-Roberts charms the audience with his lost college-boy looks and his desperation at seeing Adina making eyes at her fiancé.
Enter Dulcamara, Adina’s flamboyant stylist, proud owner of the best cosmetic foundation in town, and purveyor of a potent love elixir. Alistair Sutherland and Matthew Stiff share the role on alternate nights. Alistair Sutherland was playing the role on the night I attended and was absolutely brilliant. Everyone laughs during his opening sequence, particularly when describing his “Dulcamara Beauty Products” he excitedly rushes up to an audience member singing, “And with a face that’s that strange, maybe you should try the whole range.”
Adina’s raven-haired fiancé Belcore is a role played by Marc Callahan (Simon Meadows shares this role on alternate nights). Marc Callahan is fantastic as the ambitious, arrogant soldier and aspiring congressman who at one stage has to beg Adina to marry him. Like so many men of power, what he least suspects is that the humbler man generally wins over the heart of a love interest. Callahan portrays Belcore as a man who thinks it’s his right for a woman to love him, when in fact her head is turned by romance and thoughtfulness, not by raw ambition, pomp and swagger alone. Mayhem ensues when Dulcamara introduces his love elixir into the tangled emotional web. Wide-eyed Nemorino drinks it down and sets about winning over Adina.
Caroline Kennedy gives an equally sparkling comedic performance in the role of Gianetta, Adina’s actress friend (the role is shared with Eleanor Ross). The love elixir has such a magnetic effect on Giannetta that she’s instantly overcome with passion and chases the hot flustered Nemorino around the pool.
I’m not going to give away the ending but I do suggest getting over to the King’s Head Theatre to find out what happens.
OperaUpClose was founded by Adam Spreadbury-Maher, Ben Cooper and Robin Norton-Hale in 2009. Since then it has become the resident company at the King’s Head Theatre and seat prices at the King’s Head make opera accessible and affordable to the whole community. Families can spend an evening together watching a vibrant production and still have change in their pockets for interval drinks and dinner (I recommend booking the Cöte Brasserie, 4-6 Islington Green). CLICK HERE for the King's Head free drinks voucher at Cöte Brasserie.
Whatever you do, don’t miss this charming operatic gem.
Booking until 16th March 2013
Box Office: 0207 478 0160
Address: The King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 1QN