Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is a wonderfully dazzling concoction of idiotic behaviour and exaggerated passions. Since its premiere in 1832 it has been enormously popular with audiences and this revival of Covent Garden’s production was received with as much enthusiasm as usual – despite a fire alarm in the middle which emptied the theatre for half an hour. The experience of being cast out onto a windy street emphasised the magic of Donizetti’s world.

Who could resist the come-uppence of the beautiful Adina, the arrogant Sergeant Belcore, the fast talking Doctor Dulcamara who sells love-lorn Nemorino red wine as the elixir of love? Transported to an Italian village in the1950s this revival looks as young and exuberant as ever, even if the biggest laugh comes when a tiny dog run across the stage.

Yet for all the fun, the opera lives or dies at the success or failure of the serious sentiment which lies at the heart of the story and is so beautifully expressed in Donizettis music. L’elisir d’amore may be played as a comedy, as Nemorino falls backwards over hay bales and Belcore makes himself look like a pompous fool, but it is love that makes this world go round: Nemorino’s love for Adina. He may be naïve, foolish, uneducated and poor (at least for most of the story) but it is his steadfast love that holds the whole plot together. He must be able to sing ‘Una furtive lagrima’ so that our hearts bleed. In other words, without a Nemorino who can sing convincingly the great love songs a few moments after he has been making himself look ridiculous, the whole concoction falls apart.

Many will have seen the glorious Roberto Alagna play the role and indeed he returns later in the run with Aleksandra Kursak as before, but I saw a newcomer. Liparit Avetisyan is an Armenian who has none of the beauty of Alagna and indeed looks the part of a simple Italian peasant. There seems no chance he will ever win over the beautiful, rich Adina. This makes his singing all the more important if he is to convince Adina to take him seriously. For me, Avetisyan passed this difficult test, his voice pure and strong enough to convey the depth of his feelings, his buffoonery gradually becoming tragic until his final triumph.

The singer playing Adina is the much lauded South African, Pretty Yende, making her Covent Garden debut. With her haughty good looks and sinuous figure as she sunbathed on the hay bales, Yende personified a dazzling, coquettish woman who never underrates her charms. Her voice too, strong and soaring confidently into trills, seemed far more suited as a pair to the bombastic, boasting Sergeant Belcore (played as an enjoyable parody by Paolo Bordogna) than to her love-sick swain.

Throw into this mix the absurd Dulcamara (played by Alex Esposito as a cross between a wizard and a sleazy salesman) his lorry-load of potions ( a real on-stage lorry) and his constant patter, and Nemorino looks certain to be edged out of the picture. But, happily, love really does conquer all and at length Adina sees Nemorino’s true value. Although I would never turn down a chance to see Alagna in the role of Nemorino, there was something fresh and exciting about this production’s combination of the new and young which totally won me over.

L’elisir d’amore by Donizetti

Conducted by Bertrand de Billy

Royal Opera House Covent Garden
Director and Costume Designer – Laurent Pelly
Revival Director – Daniel Dooner
Lighting Designer – Joel Adam
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