Donizetti’s melodramma giocoso in two acts, L’elisir d’amore, is a light-hearted tale of love overcoming all obstacles, with the help of a little “love potion”. Tonight’s performance, in the intimate space of the King’s Head Theatre, was updated to Hollywood: the beautiful actress Adina (Una Reynolds) is being courted by Sergeant Belcore (Marc Callahan), who wants her as a “trophy wife” – much to the dismay of the lowly gardener Nemorino (Alex Vearey-Roberts), who is completely, heartbreakingly, in love with Adina. Of course, Adina has noticed Nemorino’s affection, but scorns his advances and advises him to be free like a dragonfly and have a different lover every week, like her.

L'Elisir D'Amore - Marc Callahan and Una Reynolds © Christopher Tribble
L'Elisir D'Amore - Marc Callahan and Una Reynolds
© Christopher Tribble

Reynolds was the perfect Adina – tall, blonde and glamorous, with a voice to match. Her high, light soprano was impressively dexterous, with fabulously easy coloratura. Her naturalness onstage shone through and her communication of the text was crystal clear. There was a slightly bizarre juxtaposition between the all-American feel of the set and costume and the intermittent American accents produced by all members of the cast. However, the same could be said of the high romance of Donizetti’s score and the modern-day English translation of the original libretto, which, although occasionally rather stilted, was extremely funny and conveyed with fabulous diction by the singers. It was an evening of many contrasts, and once I was used to the unconventional set up, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The stylist and all-round American life coach Dulcamara (Alistair Sutherland) appears on the scene, with a suitcase full of cure-all remedies, which gives Nemorino an idea – if only he could get a love potion like the one in the famous story of Tristan and Isolde (cue cheesy musical quotation!), all his problems would be solved. He asks Dulcamara for this magical potion, and he obliges by mixing him a gin sling, telling him it is the recipe used by Isolde and it will surely make Adina fall for him. Of course, it will only work after 24 hours (once Dulcamara has had time to leave town). Dulcamara fulfilled the role of sleazy salesman very well and his patter songs provided many a comical moment. However, sometimes the text got slightly in the way of the music, meaning that ensemble was not always what it could have been. This cannot have been helped by the space – I’m sure the singers could hardly hear the piano, viola and saxophone trio that were accompanying them at times. That being said, the arrangement of Donizetti’s score for this unusual trio worked extremely well, and I never felt the lack of orchestral accompaniment.

A spanner is thrown in the works when Belcore, full of American swagger and with a wonderfully rich vocal colour throughout, proposes to marry Adina, who, to spite Nemorino, agrees to the wedding and suggests getting married that evening, before the potion is supposed to have its effect. Nemorino is obviously devastated and runs to Dulcamara for more of the wondrous potion. Dulcamara tells him it will cost one hundred pounds, and to pay the debt Nemorino signs up to the army. In the meantime, Adina’s friend Giannetta (Caroline Kennedy), the only one to fully achieve an American twang throughout, has been told that Nemorino’s film scripts have been accepted and he is a millionaire. She runs to tell her friends – Callahan and Sutherland looking ravishing in dressing gowns and turbans – and soon the whole town has found out. Nemorino is overwhelmed by women and thinks the potion must have finally had its effect. However, the whole story eventually comes out, by virtue of the gossiping nature of Dulcamara; Belcore and Adina’s wedding is cancelled and Nemorino gets what he wanted all along – Adina’s love.

It was an impressively concise performance by a small cast, in a space that took no prisoners, and with a large amount cut from the original score, meaning that every singer had an almost relentless role. Although everyone coped extremely well, the lovelorn Vearey-Roberts was showing the strain in the upper register by the end of the show. In the small space, the voices, although young, were occasionally too big for the room, especially when singing in full chorus numbers. However, the set and use of the room was ingenious and the audience felt completely part of the action throughout.