Holland Park, London

Classical review: L'elisir d'amore - Plant-food and pesticide make a knock-out elixir


Holland Park's Donizetti is set on an industrial farm and its hero wears a boiler suit, but the warmth of the singing still melts hearts

In Pia Furtado's production of Donizetti's will-they-won't-they romance, L'elisir d'amore, hero and heroine nurse their seedling love in a modern-day sunflower farm. Two trucks bear the image of Adina (Sarah Tynan), here elevated from landowner to brand-name, while Nemorino (Aldo Di Toro) sighs and stutters in a regulation boiler suit, inarticulate with unrequited love. Roll the years back and you could see the two of them at primary school, the golden girl and the star-struck boy.

Now, as ever, Adina is out of Nemorino's reach, perched on top of a truck, where she sceptically relates the story of Tristan and Isolde while Geoffrey Dolton's squirrelly Dulcamara darts from pesticide to plant food, concocting the elixir that will, in a roundabout fashion, unlock Adina's heart and blur the wrinkles and receding hairlines of her gullible workers.

Furtado is a tough-love director, perhaps too tough. Act I is all about pride: the goose-stepping, Gangsta-posing vanity of George von Bergen's Belcore and a streak of cruelty to Tynan's Adina. But as the sun sets on the sterile industrial shelving and Perspex walls of Leslie Travers's set, the trucks are converted into bodegas and the sunflowers nod and bend, the magic of Act II casts its spell. Dolton's energy, von Bergen's machismo, Di Toro's warmth, the mellow playing of the City of London Sinfonia under Stephen Higgins, and, most of all, Tynan's exquisitely idiomatic performance of "Prendi, per me sei libero" combine to touching effect.

So from the sunflowers of Holland Park to the Chapeau chinois, aka Jingling Johnny, the elaborate bell-hung instrument beloved of Baroque composers. The exotic percussion in Les Siècles' lithe period-instrument performances of Lully's Cérémonie pour les Turcs and Rameau's Danse du grand Calumet de la paix and Chaconne sauvage under François Xavier Roth (Prom 4, Royal Albert Hall, London ****) opened a sequence of Proms in which dance, benign and cruel, threaded through five centuries of music.

Roth offered a whistlestop survey of French ballet and historical instrumentation, from the theorbos and tamborinos of the ancien régime to the watery pedal harp, musky brass and smoky cor anglais of Delibes's Coppélia and the tart piccolos of Massenet's El Cid, delivered, oddly, without rubato. Played in Stravinsky's original version, The Rite of Spring became a concerto for early 20th-century French woodwind, Michael Rolland's humid bassoon solo a lethal hot-house flower. The style police may shake their heads over Roth using a staff to beat time in the Rameau (that practice ended after Lully died of gangrene poisoning from a self-inflicted wound), and I wonder at a Rite in which the soundworld is more electrifying than the performance itself. All the same, what a treat.

Helmut Lachenmann's Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied, performed by the Arditti Quartet and Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Jonathan Nott (Prom 5), wove filaments of historic dance forms around shreds and shadows of the stolidly cheerful Haydn melody that became the German national anthem. This gauzy, monumental work operates at two levels: as a musical vergangenheitsbewältigung ("a coming to terms with the past") typical of Lachenmann's generation of German artists, and as a de- and reconstruction of musical tradition. Some heard Beethoven and Bach in the brush and tap of bows on wood and steel. I heard Praetorius. It was, in any case, the perfect prelude to Thomas Adès's blistering Totentanz (Prom 8), premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the composer, with Simon Keenlyside singing the role of Death and Christianne Stotijn as his wheedling, lamenting, horror-struck, seduced, disarmed or pitifully trusting dancing partners, from pope to parish clerk, mayor to maiden, peasant to child.

A bold, greedy, gloriously scored work of burning, Bergian lyricism, Totentanz is Adès's tightest and most thrilling concert work since Asyla, the symphonic techno anthem that made his name.

'L'elisir d'amore' to 3 Aug (opera hollandpark.com)

Critic's Choice

The BBC Proms goes Wagner crazy as the Ring Cycle from Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin, opens with Das Rheingold at the Royal Albert Hall, London (Mon), and Semyon Bychkov conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Tristan und Isolde (Sat). Meanwhile, Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company present Handel's Acis and Galatea in the garden cloisters of Iford Manor, near Bradford-on-Avon (from Sat).


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