Classical Music / Review: Smiles better: Raymond Monelle on Glasgow's new L'elisir d'amore

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The Independent Culture
No one is more surprised than Dulcamara, the quack doctor in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, when his love-potion actually works. What he does not know is that the operative factor is, in fact, money - the large fortune left to Nemorino by his uncle - rather than the cheap wine which Dulcamara has fraudulently sold him.

That's what opera is like, a fraud and a load of charlatanry, which nobody believes in but which nevertheless works its magic. Giles Havergal's new production for Scottish Opera, which opened in Glasgow on Tuesday, is a charlatan's field day. The designer, Russell Craig, places the whole stage in a great gilt frame and fills it with primary blues, reds, greens, with Italian peasants in straw hats, sheets hung out to dry, baskets for the new vintage, a life-size horse and even an upright piano. You looked around for Buttons, Baron Hardup and the Broker's Men.

The picturebook set was matched by witty and droll acting, bristling with tiny sight- gags and silent messages to the audience. Havergal listened constantly to Donizetti's score; everything was planned to the last shrug and wink. Above all, Scottish Opera has found a cast of expressive movers - military, balletic or shambling. It was a gay painting, a merry dance, a chain of perfectly formed musical vignettes, a marvellous show.

Cheryl Barker, as Adina, without being a natural coloraturist or a particularly Italianate singer, was thoroughly competent, with one of those flitting, flashing voices that lighten and sweeten every phrase. She was able to glide and waltz across the stage like a dream and she looked gorgeous. Her Nemorino, Paul Charles Clarke, seemed a bit constrained at first but gained credibility as he went along; this was not the drippy, wimpish Nemorino that no decent girl would look at twice, but an honest and shy boy with a lot of courage. By the time of 'Una furtiva lagrima' he was in total control, beginning the second verse in an enthralling, slightly husky pianissimo.

Only the cadences and cadenzas sounded wooden, partly because the conductor, Marco Guidarini, stuck firmly with his excellent tempos. You forgave him because be made the score work so well, with lilting chorus rhythms and plenty of daylight in the orchestral textures.

Belcore was the wonderful Simon Keenlyside. There seems no limit to this artist's versatility; a manly Billy Budd, an avian Papageno and now this dapper caricature of a self-opinionated fancypants, clicking to attention and stroking his moustache with portentous absurdity.

Claude Corbeil, the Canadian singer who was Dulcamara, was provided with an assistant in the form of Graham McLaren, an accomplished, non-singing clown, whose leers, flops and disasters relieved the magnificent doctor of the need for constant business. Corbeil was able to adopt a certain false dignity, avuncular and quietly preposterous, with a fine ripe voice and plenty of fairground swing. Even the peasant girl Giannetta (Lisa Milne, a new singer we shall have to watch) had a real, substantial vocal personality.

It added up to an unmissable evening, blessedly without serious intent, a piece of brilliant circus. With its stunning new (if now slightly undercast) Magic Flute, Scottish Opera appears well on the road to another golden era.

In rep at Theatre Royal, Glasgow (041-332 9000) to 11 Feb