Bright and colourful, Deutsche Oper's new production of Donizetti’s L'elisir d’amore does justice to the classic story of a quack love potion and the consequences of timing and good luck. Updated to the 1950s and involving the antics of a travelling theatre company and rogue doctor, the new staging is good clean fun with excellent singing and just a hint of naughtiness to keep things spicy.

Dimitri Pittas (Nemorino) © Monika Rittershaus
Dimitri Pittas (Nemorino)
© Monika Rittershaus

L'elisir d’amore tells the story of a young man in love with a local beauty, but too shy to do anything about it. A “love potion” – really a bottle of Bordeaux sold by the quack doctor, Dulcamara – enables young Nemorino to feel just brave enough to make his feelings known. However, as he does so by playing hard-to-get, he incites Adina to declare her feelings for the cavalier Sergeant Belcore instead. The resulting shenanigans involve a rich, deceased uncle, a chorus of women who know people's business before they do themselves, and a lot of cheap wine. This being comic opera at its best, the show ends happily for all involved, with Adina and Nemorino finally finding solace in each other's arms. It is silly, sparkly and outrageous, and has been a hit since Donizetti composed it in 1832.

Updated to the 1950s, the new Deutsche Oper L'elisir is the brainchild of director Irina Brook, known for her work in the theatre. Much of Brook’s work centres around Shakespeare, and there is a nod to this, with Adina part of a band of travelling theatre company attempting to rehearse a play of vaguely Shakespearean proportions. Adina, sung excellently by Heidi Stober, is a fast-talking, flirtatious director, so wrapped up in the romance and glamour of her career that she puts a different costume over her own clothes for each of her interactions with the other principals. Stober is a good choice for Adina, her voice sparkling but with a heft that gives Donizetti's coloratura weight. When she realizes that Nemorino loves her, she immediately finds herself a soldier, just to make him mad, then continually puts him off. Adina, we come to understand, doesn’t quite know what it is that she actually wants.

Heidi Stober (Adina) © Monika Rittershaus
Heidi Stober (Adina)
© Monika Rittershaus

Nemorino, a lowly janitor, knows exactly what he wants, but is too shy to go about getting it. When Adina dons a flowery gown and recites the story of Tristan and Isolde, he is just foolish enough to believe that such a love potion actually exists, thus playing right into the hands of Dulcamara who, though not knowing who Isolde is, sells him a bottle of cheap wine. Sung by tenor Dimitri Pittas, Nemorino is sweet, ardent, shy, and truly faithful to the girl he adores. We believe him when he says that he would rather die a soldier (he enlists in Belcore’s regiment to buy more “potion”) than to endure a life without Adina. Bolstered by booze, he struts and dances around the stage, but never becomes mean or unkind. Nemorino is the ideal man for Heidi Stober’s delightful Adina: unlike the macho Belcore, he will never be put off by the strong woman he has fallen for. Like most fairy tales, they will live happily ever after.

Our lovers are supported by a trio of fantastic sidekicks, all of whom were excellently sung and acted. As Dulcamara, Nicola Alaimo took cheery advantage of the travelling actors. His deep bass voice and avuncular attitude made him utterly believable as a peddler of miracle wares and magic tricks. Simon Pauly played a strong Belcore, watching the unfolding of events with wry amusement: this soldier knows that Adina is playing with him to annoy Nemorino, and he takes her abandonment in good grace: we see him chatting up Adina’s friend, Giannetta, at the end of the show. As Giannetta, Alexandra Hutton sang with a sweet soprano, working the role of local gossip and theatre choreographer with spunk. In the silent role of Riccardo, Geoffrey Carey did a magnificent job of playing the comic sidekick to Dulcamara’s antics. The Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, led by Roberto Rizzi Brignoli, dazzled in the pit.

Nicola Alaimo (Dulcamara) © Monika Rittershaus
Nicola Alaimo (Dulcamara)
© Monika Rittershaus

Brook’s L'elisir is bright and colourful: a trio of red caravans draped in fairy lights surrounds a pop-up stage and picnic area in which Adina and her players rehearse their show and flirt with Belcore's soldiers. This pop-up stage occasionally crowds the action stage left, but not in a way that distracts from the opera in any big way. Indeed, it is home to the 'play-within-a-play' concept, holding dancers, singers, a dancing drunken Nemorino and even a brass band. And in the end, as Dulcamara leaves, it is where Nemorino and Adina act out their story, dressed as Tristan and Isolde, applauded by their friends and fellows. In all, Irina Brook’s production is fun and clever, a timeless story of young love that only needed a little booze to flourish.