If Debussy intended Pelléas et Mélisande as a deliberate anti-Tristan, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore perhaps stumbled into the role. Donizetti was of course not responding to Wagner’s opera (which would not be written for another three decades) but to the legend Wagner would also draw on, with results that were rather more... German, shall we say, than the sunlit uplands of L’elisir. Shakespeare warns us not to trust “the man that hath no music in himself”, and I would worry about anyone who couldn’t enjoy this piece. Donizetti famously took two weeks to write an opera (prompting Rossini to call him “a lazy fellow” for taking so long...) and whilst L’elisir may not evoke (or have the slightest ambition to) the “sweet, shuddering infinity” that Nietzsche claimed to find in Tristan, it’s damn good fun with damn good tunes.

Adina and chorus © Opéra de Baugé
Adina and chorus
© Opéra de Baugé

Many opera singers believe in eating an apple before they sing, and Opéra de Baugé’s production of L’elisir helpfully builds this in for Adina as she sits reading the legend of Tristan and Iseult to herself during the overture. She tells the excited village girls the tale of the magic potion that makes anyone fall in love with you, unwittingly giving encouragement to the village misfit who has long adored her. The production initially dresses her as dowdily as possible, in reading glasses and a dress buttoned so high I’m surprised she can breathe in it let alone sing, as if to stress that it’s her money and position that attracts most of her suitors – but not, we feel, the hapless Nemorino.

The role of Nemorino is a gift for the right kind of singing actor, something like an operatic Roberto Benigni. Tonight it was taken by Alexander Pidgen, who brought to it just the right combination of gormless befuddlement in his acting and genuine beauty in his singing. “Una furtiva lagrima” may not come as early in the opera as the dreaded “Celeste Aida”, but it’s surely one of the most exposed arias in the repertoire, accompanied in the main just by harp arpeggios and the occasional woodwind melody echoing the singer. Here at least no amount of bluster will disguise a flawed technique, but Pidgen passed the test admirably.

Adina’s music presents altogether different challenges. With such over-the-top coloratura, the trick is not just to get all the notes out but to make musical sense of them so they don’t seem irrelevant and ridiculous, like Christmas tree decorations hung on Michelangelo’s David. Fortunately tonight we had a truly astonishing vocal performance from Rebecca Dale – seemingly incapable of making an unpleasant sound, she made even the twiddliest of twiddly bits seem not just organic and necessary but effortless. There were perhaps half a dozen notes (out of literally thousands) that didn’t quite have enough support to be bang on pitch, but that’s a tiny quibble about a performance that could serve as a masterclass in bel canto singing, and a welcome reminder that vibrato isn’t the Italian word for “strain”.

Adina’s attitude to Nemorino is a bit of an open question – if it changes, when does it do so and why? Alternatively, does she always like him but either feel that their difference in status makes a relationship impossible, or genuinely worry that her flightiness would break his heart? Is Dulcamara’s song about “Senator Three Tooth” an attempt to talk Adina out of marrying Belcore, and if so, does he really care or just see an opportunity to prove the effectiveness of his “potion”? For that matter, does he start to believe his “potion” is working when he sees Nemorino surrounded by girls, or does he know the real reason?

I’ve no idea what attitude Opéra de Baugé’s production takes to these questions, but it’s effective in putting people in the right place at the right time, and Adam Purnell’s set is wonderfully evocative. I particularly liked the ending, when Stephen Kennedy’s excellent and entertaining Dulcamara delivers the moral “drinking is fun” to the audience, an antidote to the preachiness of what Mozart and Da Ponte would be telling us at this point. The singers are supported by spirited and sensitive performance from the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Baugé under John Andrews.

I can’t pretend to like the way Belcore and the other soldiers are staged. There’s certainly plenty of comedy to be had in the gap between how the oafish sergeant sees himself and what everyone else sees, but tonight it seemed as if the Sergeant of Police and his merry band from The Pirates of Penzance had somehow wandered into the wrong theatre. (Apart, that is, from the costumes, bright green suits topped with yellow building site-style safety helmets – I would assume they were left over from another production, but then, what could it conceivably be?) Also, the surtitles really do need to work more reliably than they do, or there’s little point in having them.

But these are minor complaints about an evening that included some of the best singing I’ve heard in a long time, and made me wonder why well-funded professional companies can’t always hit this standard.