The Elixir of Love, Coliseum, London<br/>Drumming, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Jonathan Miller's Donizetti comedy &ndash; placed in a 'Grease'-style American diner &ndash; is cute and clever
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The Independent Culture

New to English National Opera, Jonathan Miller's production of The Elixir of Love transposes Donizetti's neat, sweet Italian comedy to a roadside diner on the edge of a town somewhere on Route 66.

If this place had a name, it would probably be Nostalgia. The location is imprecise – Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas or California would do – the period some time in the mid-1950s, the diner a spick-and-span, strawberry-and-peppermint pre-fab, its clientele a collection of small-town stereotypes in denim overalls and ice cream sundae circle skirts.

Though the dusty horizon and wide blue skies of Isabella Bywater's designs are ripe for UFOs, paranoia has no place here. The odd James Dean and Marlon Brando lookalike can mingle with the good ol' boys without arousing suspicion. And excepting the poster for Strange Cargo (1940) that hangs in the kitchen, and a well-thumbed, pulp fiction retelling of the legend of Tristan and Isolde, there is little to indicate any yearning or burning in the heart of our pert, practical hostess Adina (Sarah Tynan). Marilyn Monroe from the neck up, June Allyson from the waist down, it's only a matter of time before this prim, paper nylon princess snares her gas-jockey, grease-monkey prince.

Miller is smart enough to know that the charm of romantic comedies lies as much in the predictability of their outcome as in the twists and turns the lovers must take to get to the altar. He's in no hurry here, and though there are long stretches where there is nothing on stage but a series of triangle formations and a little background business from the cook, the human details are well observed, from the gum-chewing swagger of David Kempster's Sergeant Belcore, to John Tessier's tipsy transformation from knock-kneed naif Nemorino to millionaire, and Tynan's shimmying "barcarolle" routine at the microphone with Andrew Shore's sharp-suited, Elvis-impersonating Dulcamara. It's cute. It's clever. It's surprisingly sentimental. But there's more sex appeal in a single flash of Julia Sporsén's smoky eyes (Giannetta) than there is in our sweet-natured, apple-pie hero and heroine.

Give or take the odd rough rhyme ("solace" and "promise") Kelley Rourke's Americanised translation is brisk and funny, and though Tynan and Tessier's pretty, nimble, Mozartian voices are too often overwhelmed by Pablo Heras-Casado's stiff account of the orchestral score – this is a work that blossoms in a smaller space – there is some lovely work from flautist Katie Bedford, bassoonist Daniel Jemison and fortepianist Nicholas Ansdell-Evans.

It's difficult to imagine this Adina and Nemorino will be romping in the haystacks, like the hot-to-trot couple in Laurent Pelly's hyperactive Royal Opera House production, or be sparring over who gets to wear the pants, like Annabel Arden's lovers at Glyndebourne. But if your idea of a happy ending is a white wedding, a chain of Adina's Diners on the interstate, and a brood of freckle-faced kids who call their father "Sir", ENO's nostalgic Elixir should go down a treat.

Steve Reich's 1971 masterpiece, Drumming, is an exercise in radiance: an ecstatic, unbroken, four-part series of sophisticated variations in timbre and rhythm for marimbas, bongo drums, glockenspiels, voices, piccolo and whistler that moves from hot to hotter, high to higher, bright to dazzling. The duration is variable, between 50 and 90 minutes. And, as the Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals showed in their 70-minute Queen Elizabeth Hall performance on Tuesday, any sense of time passing is obliterated by the mesmerising beauty of these pulsing, refracting kaleidoscopic patterns.

Held together by eye contact, ear contact, intimate understanding of the score and collective breathing, the performance was both aurally and visually exciting – a work of art and also one of craft at its most disciplined and alert. As the nine percussionists gathered around their instruments and withdrew, tuning was checked and adjusted, felt and wood fingered, wrists flexed. Individual musical personalities emerged, tensions built and released in the nail-biting transitions. Dust (the bongos) and glass (the marimbas) sprang to mind, then liquid glass (the glockenspiels), then the sun. If Reich's Music for 18 Musicians is a depiction of Heaven, Drumming is the earth.

'The Elixir of Love' (0871 911 0200), to 23 Mar

Next Week:

Anna Picard boards the Orient-Express for James Robinson's Twenties-style production of The Abduction from the Seraglio for Welsh National Opera

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