Hordes of beach bums gather for their fix of fun in the sun and it looks like just another day at Adina's seaside bar. That is before the flashy salesman Dulcamara enters in a jeep to flog his "Elisir" brand of energy drink. The rakish Belcore, a naval officer dressed in pristine white uniform, is soon frolicking in the sand with bikini-clad adorers. With such larger-than-life characters to compete against, the odds are stacked against the gauche deckchair steward Nemorino in what are bungled attempts to win the hand of Adina, his employer.

Alex Esposito (Dulcamara) © Alfredo Tabocchini
Alex Esposito (Dulcamara)
© Alfredo Tabocchini

Damiano Michieletto's production of L'elisir d'amore has travelled widely throughout Europe since its 2012 Valencia première. There have been some imaginative scenic configurations during that time, for example at La Monnaie in 2015 when the sets were adapted to be presented in the round and featured the orchestra dressed in bathing suits on one side of the stage. Now, at the Macerata Opera Festival, Michieletto's conception has found its ideal setting. Only a short leap of the imagination is required on a balmy summer's night in the open-air Sferisterio Arena to whisk us off to the beach party we see before us. Indeed, the panoramic seaside view is particularly realistic in this space – it could have been designed with the Sferisterio's 90-metre-wide stage in mind.

<i>L'elisir d'amore</i> at Macerata © Alfredo Tabocchini
L'elisir d'amore at Macerata
© Alfredo Tabocchini

The large Sferisterio is usually a difficult space for directors, but Michieletto fills it with a wealth of racy detail: an unbridled hedonistic vision of almost Berlusconian proportions. Adina's most excitable customers, who cluster around the neon-lit bar, under parasols or around a handball net, pose for selfies when the Italian stallion Belcore rips off his uniform. The razzle dazzle Dulcamara arrives with an entourage of advertising girls in hotpants who moan suggestively in time with his sales pitch. Anarchic shenanigans reach a peak after Nemorino's love potion takes effect in Act 2. Here, a giant inflatable wedding cake filled with foam becomes the focal point of outlandish fun.

<i>L'elisir d'amore</i> at Macerata © Alfredo Tabocchini
L'elisir d'amore at Macerata
© Alfredo Tabocchini

This frivolous superstructure, however, is built on solid dramaturigical foundations. Deft directorial interventions tease depth and nuance from the libretto and score. The professional relationship between Nemorino and Adina creates an interesting power dynamic that raises the stakes, and Nemorino's comparatively lowly position lends a sour classist pretext to Belcore's contempt. Imaginative treatment of da capo arias means repeated sections carry the drama forwards rather than simply provide coloratura showcases. When Nemorino's protests are reprised, having Adina surrounded by drooling men lends greater urgency to his protests.

John Osborn makes a triumphant debut as Nemorino, and presents the character as equally prone to goofy errors of judgement – he rips off his trousers in misguidedly macho moment – as possessive of the moral virtues that will lead to eventual conquest of Adina. Osborn's highly-refined “Una furtiva lagrima” communicated self-searching introspection rather than searing grief and spoke strongly of the character's isolation. The tenor then ceded to the audience's demands to deliver what was apparently his first ever encore in an operatic performance.

John Osborn (Nemorino) © Alfredo Tabocchini
John Osborn (Nemorino)
© Alfredo Tabocchini

Alex Esposito was on anarchic form as Dulcamara, flying on stage like a rampant bull in his opening aria and matching peppy textual delivery with an irrepressible physical display. Iurii Samoilov was a stylish Belcore, while Mariangela Sicilia's Adina was sweet but too frigid to fully communicate the character's inner vixen. Francesco Lanzilotta, the Macerata Festival's new Music Director, drew a joyous and elegant reading of the score that was invested with both a strong rhythmic pulse and a sense of flexibility and flow. If you can't get to the beach this summer make sure you catch Michieletto's L'elisir d'amore; it's possibly even better than the real thing.

 

James' press trip was funded by Macerata Opera Festival

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