The broad humour of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore can be difficult to bring off without seeming hokey or overly saccharine. Thankfully, Simon Phillips’ production hit the nail on the head with its healthy blend of comic effects and touching sentiment. It contained a truly beautiful set design and was largely non-interventionist directorially, although there certainly can’t be many other productions in which Nemorino shears corrugated iron sheep and Adina brushes a corrugated iron horse in time to the duet “Esulti pur la Barbara”.

Pene Pati (Nemorino) © Simon Watts
Pene Pati (Nemorino)
© Simon Watts

This production, here restaged by Matthew Barclay, takes us to a small Antipodean farming town, and the newspaper covers the villagers read during the orchestral prelude make it clear that it is the First World War. Not only the farm animals (horses, cows, sheep and chickens) but indeed almost the whole set is created from corrugated iron sheets of various hues, browns for the earth and blues for the sky, making for a visually stunning effect. The supertitles too translated Felice Romani’s libretto to a familiar country vernacular, filled with “sheilas” and describing them as “corker”, to consistently amusing effect. The direction was unfailingly natural as the cast and chorus seamlessly moved around fences, on and off horses and through chicken coops. It was full of clever comic touches, such as Nemorino glancing up at the supertitles to understand Belcore’s singing with his mouth full, all executed without a trace of self-regarding pantomime. The comic timing was excellent throughout, with particular attention made to coordinating funny moments with significant points in the music.

Morgan Pearse (Belcore) and Amina Edris (Adina) © Simon Watts
Morgan Pearse (Belcore) and Amina Edris (Adina)
© Simon Watts

Luckily the standard of the solo performances more than matched the delights of the production itself. Both Amina Edris and Pene Pati were frankly adorable, vocally and dramatically. Her voice has an intriguing, throbbing vibrato and she has an instinctive way with the bel canto phrases, especially noticeable in the languorous and longing “Quanto amore” duet with Dulcamara. The final climactic aria, too, was expertly executed, full-toned and ravishingly phrased in the cavatina and with pinpoint vocal divisions in the cabaletta. Her Adina was a complicated creature, veering naturally from flirty and vexatious in the first act to a truly touching realisation of her love for Nemorino.

Pati, more well known here in his native New Zealand as a member of vocal pop-era trio SOL3 MIO, proved equally adept at navigating the standard operatic repertoire. He possesses an authentically Italianate style, knowing how to create a magical moment to allow the audience to luxuriate in his glorious voice. This was most notable in the exquisitely rendered recitative following his purchase of the magic elixir. “Una furtiva lagrima” is a set-piece for any lyric tenor worth his salt and Pati certainly didn’t disappoint, imbuing the long phrases with golden tone. He introduced some interesting variations to the main melody on its second appearance and capped the final moments of the aria with a deliciously controlled diminuendo. His acting was similarly superb. This was the kind of Nemorino that had the audience rooting for him from his first moments on stage, convincingly lovesick and equally convincingly devastated when he feels Adina slipping away.

Conal Coad (Dulcamara) © Simon Watts
Conal Coad (Dulcamara)
© Simon Watts

If the other vocalists were less extraordinary they certainly did not let the side down. Belcore was played by Morgan Pearse, his light baritone expertly handling the frequent coloratura flourishes that many Belcores simply fudge. He played the sergeant as narcissistic but foolish, a very funny approach even if Belcore never quite seemed a serious prospect for Adina’s hand. Conal Coad has had a 40-year career in principal bass roles and this long experience was clear in his handling of Dulcamara’s character. Though no longer the possessor of the fullest or steadiest of bass tones, he employed every trick from the comic bass handbook and it worked wonderfully well. Lastly, there was a supremely delightful Giannetta in the person of Natasha Wilson, proving once again that there is no such thing as a small role. There were no reservations either about the expert playing of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under the lyrical baton of Wyn Davies.

Charming and hilarious by turn, this beautiful production of L’elisir d’amore was an extremely welcome entry in New Zealand Opera’s 2018 season, especially following the disappointing Candide in March. It was an absolute pleasure to experience the largely young and Kiwi cast work vocal and dramatic magic through Donizetti’s evergreen charmer.

*****