First night: The Elixir of Love, ENO
With her new production of Donizetti's bibulous comedy for ENO, Jude Kelly has become the latest theatre director to move into opera. She may ignore the stage directions, says Edward Seckerson, but she really knows how to bring this music to life.

It doesn't look much like the kind of place where dreams come true. But it's the kind of place where dreamers seek refuge in dreams. Because that's the only way out. We are somewhere in greater Europe, and it doesn't much matter where. Because one civic centre, and one military regime, is much the same as another. The compliant workforce - civil servants all - report for duty with military precision. Deep in the bowels of some bureaucratic mausoleum, a legion of secretaries stand by their desks, row upon row of them. Filing drawers, a mile high, line the walls. And from up above the typing pool, the eyes of senior management look down. It's time for the morning hymn. Industriousness breeds contentment (or words to that effect), they sing, red flags at the ready. Big brother is definitely watching. In fact you can just about glimpse him, or at least the lapels of his concrete greatcoat (the bigger the dictator, the larger the statue) through the main doors of the chamber. From the look of the clothes generally, one can put the date at somewhere in the late 1940s, early 1950s. All of which wouldn't be so surprising if the opera weren't Donizetti's The Elixir of Love, premiered in Milan in 1832.

But then director Jude Kelly, chief executive of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, here making her exhilarating operatic debut, has happened upon the kind of place, the kind of situation, where the liberation of true love, where the notion of magic and romance and surpassing fancy, might actually mean something. And the cleverness, the skill of her achievement lies in having found a believably real and rather sinister context for the piece, only to make light of it. So, on the one hand, she totally discards the outward trappings of Donizetti's rustic idyll and, on the other, remains entirely true - truer - to its spirit. It's still a souffle, but it rises on the pretext of some bitter home truths.

So when the military arrive for their "once over" of the premises (a quick check for signs of subversive activity beneath the out-trays of the secretariat), the "men of action" are choreographed like chorines, lining the stairs for the timely arrival of their commanding officer - Sergeant Belcore (Ashley Holland) - at once suavely intimidating and wooing the typing pool as a matter of daily routine. Belcore has his monstrous ego set on Adina. So does the wide-eyed post-boy Nemorino; but he's a figure of fun, to be petted and patronised. Until, that is, Doctor Dulcamara roars into the equation in a hot rod packed with surprises. Dulcamara is a travelling con-man and entertainer (all illusion and no conscience), but Kelly makes him a righteous anarchist, too: Public Enemy No 1, wanted for conspiring to cause explosions - of every kind. Suddenly he's a metaphor for non-conformists everywhere. Even if all it takes is a few bottles of cheap Beaujolais.

But if all this sounds a little too much like heavy duty, it isn't. It cannot be stressed enough how well thought-through (and niftily executed) Kelly's staging - and Robert Jones's clever set - are. This is a director who listens to the dictates of the piece, who listens - really listens - to the music. Adina and Nemorino may be outwardly at odds (and at separate tables) during their duet in Act 1, scene 2, but through the symmetry of their actions - in turn mirroring the perfect symmetry of the vocal line - their hearts already beat as one.

Barry Banks (Nemorino) and Mary Plazas (Adina) look and sound like a match. He, seemingly every bit of 16 going on 17, the voice bright and true and as eager as the pint-sized countenance (though I should like to hear more of his quiet singing); she feisty and knowing, the coloratura sung for sense and spirit, not beauty alone. The versatile Andrew Shore plays Dulcamara like a kind of Archie Rice, an air of the sad and the seedy glimpsed (in those unguarded moments) beneath all the showbiz razzmatazz. And with his diction, you don't miss a syllable right through to the final explosion of mirth. I wouldn't dream of giving away exactly where Dulcamara has laid his charges, just that this thoroughly enjoyable evening goes out with a strategic bang.

In rep to 17 March, ENO at the London Coliseum, WC2 (booking: 0171-632 8300)

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