L'Elisir d'Amore - Whistle Stop production

Donizetti (music), Romani (libretto); adapted by John Savournin
Opera North
Ordsall Hall, Salford

Alex Banfield, John Savournin and Daisy Brown Credit: Tom Arber

If the idea of cutting down and stripping back a 19th century Italian comic opera, so you can present it to community and schools audiences, strikes you as (a) naff, (b) pointless or (c) a crafty way to crowbar some cash out of the Arts Council’s ever-tightening fist then, as they say round here, go outside and give your head a shake.

Opera North’s "Whistle Stop" version of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore is a wonderful, enlightening, and uplifting way to spend an hour (especially a lunch hour).

In developing this thirty-minute version of Donizetti’s cheery piece, John Savournin (in collaboration with ON’s Community Engagement Officer, Madeleine Thorne and master accordionist, Milos Milivojevic) has pulled off a magic trick which even the delightfully dodgy Dulcamara could only envy and admire.

Savournin himself combines the role of narrator with that of "Dr Encyclopaedia"—Dulcamara: the snake oil salesman, whose elixir of love (a bottle of cheap wine) is at the heart of this romcom set to music. The narration makes it possible to reduce Felice Romani’s libretto to a half-hour, "capsule" production. Much hangs on the ability of Savournin to charm and hold the audience’s attention (especially important in venues where the crowd might be of the “Me, mate? Opera, mate? Nah, mate.” inclination.)

Tim Pottier (Schools and Events Activity Manager) tells me that this tour, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, has presented two shows per venue. The first shows of each day, often full houses, have entertained school parties, workers on lunch break, a centre for adults with learning difficulties and, as here, local communities. In other words, folk who would, as a rule, not be seen dead in an opera house.

Job done? Well, only if these people go away feeling that opera really is worth a punt. Enter Savournin (Dulcamara), his accompanist Milivojevic, and the two young lovers-to-be, Daisy Brown (Adina) and Alex Banfield (Nemorino).

In main house productions, English translations of librettos bring their own problems (the audience often can’t decipher what’s being sung, and melodies structured for Italian enunciation fit less comfortably with English phonemes). Here, however, the English version is essential. Part of the point, in this outreach project, is to show how opera is a story told in song.

The acoustics of Ordsall Hall (where the Gunpowder Plot may well have been hatched) are pretty much perfect, but it is the outstanding clarity of enunciation from each of the three singers that carries the day. Savournin has exactly the right balance of swagger, mischief and warmth to hold and direct the audience. Brown and Banfield sing and act to a very high standard—we believe in their destiny to be a couple (and a good-looking couple at that, which cannot go amiss among adolescent audiences).

All three show an easy and adept engagement with an audience at such close quarters. Meanwhile, Milivojevic’s accordion supports the singing with all the modest accomplishment of the manager of a very exclusive hotel; rising to any challenge without fussing or faltering. It must be so difficult to make it look and sound so easy.

There’s lots to laugh about in this pocket-sized production, but even more to admire. Anybody who turns up thinking that opera is just incoherent histrionics will surely leave with a profound admiration for the talent and technique they have just witnessed, up close and (in one or two cases) quite personal.

Contact Opera North to find out about their next "Whistle Stop" show.

Bravo! Brava! Encore, please.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson