Can an opera like L’Elisir d’Amore be moved from the French Basque countryside to a noisy Mediterranean beach? This has been the question in everyone’s mind regarding the production the Teatro Real has chosen to end the year.

Seen from tonight’s performance, the answer is yes, but no. Yes, it could have worked. No, it does not work. But at its heart this has little to do with the setting and much to do with a long list of bigger problems.

The glaring one is that Felice Romani’s inspired libretto gets completely buried, not in the sand, but in the stage direction, or lack thereof. Damiano Michieletto encourages, or at the very least consents to, a universe where every individual shares the single aim of attracting attention, irrespective of whether they deserve any. The result is an in-your-face beach where any attempts to tell a story are dwarfed by aerobic sessions, hyperactive people jumping up and down on an inflatable castle or strippers proving their worth. There is no focus, no prioritisation. Everything is treated and trashed equally. Nothing matters more or less than anything else. Really, nothing matters. Gateano who?

Within this universe there is hardly any space for those leading the story. Nino Machaidze holds her ground as best she can as the landlady-turned-bar-owner Adina, singing with dignity and getting to the end relatively unscathed. At times she gets a tad closer to a real character than others. So does Ruth Rosique as Giannetta, her cheekiness coherent with her personality. Celso Albelo tries but does not quite make a solid Nemorino. The treatment his character gets – a mocked lifeguard who has to bear being tied up to a chair, forced under a cold shower, dumped rubbish all over – must not have helped. Erwin Schrott boasts his powerful voice but irritaingly overplays his Dulcamara, who gets morphed into a gaudy and womaniser racketeer. Fabio Maria Capitanucci has, well, beautiful Italian pronunciation.

Playing into the hands of this performance is also musical direction. Marc Piollet does something somehow not dissimilar to the stage director: he lets his children go out and play without showing them to discern good from bad. Hence the score becomes a self-serving means for singers to revel into, with rubatos that truly steal the score from its intended spirit and with an overall bland performance that lacks direction. The orchestra does what it can too, which is not a lot. Piollet has just been announced as the music director of Tristan und Isolde, the production that will open 2014 in the Madrid opera house. He replaces Teodor Currentzis, who recently conducted The Indian Queen (the Bachtrack review of which is here). Let’s see whether conducting a hopefully less saturating production – Peter Sellars will be the stage director – does anything to improve his performance.

Comedy is the trickiest of arts. Mastering it requires a fine balancing exercise. There is nothing as cringing as seeing a stage full of people who find themselves hilarious, and in so doing forgetting that their role is not to entertain themselves but others. This production perfectly exemplifies the warning Stanislavski once issued: love the art in yourself and not yourself in the art.