When you hear the name Donizetti, you think of Italy. And when you hear of his opera entitled L’Elisir d’Amore, all sorts of romantic notions are conjured up. Barry Island, on the other hand, seems far less glamorous than you’d expect; the home of Stacey Shipman (née West), this Welsh seaside resort is the setting for the King’s Head Theatre and Opera’r Ddraig’s new production of The Elixir of Love. There’s a nice history of the Italian community in Wales in the show programme, which makes the location more of a logical choice than you might originally think – and just think back to Bella’s Café in Fireman Sam.
Oh, what’s occurrin’? Nicky is in love with café owner Adina, and has been for quite some time, but she is completely oblivious. When Captain Brandon returns he starts pursuing her in earnest, though she rebuffs him (her colleague Gina sees this as her opportunity) – Nicky becomes more hopeful, but realises he needs to up his game. Enter ‘Dr’ Dulcamara! This travelling salesman may produce an official-looking certificate and catalogues of his lotions & potions, but he makes it clear to us that he’s on the make and all his treatments are no better than placebos. Nicky’s desperation sees him buying an ‘elixir’ which should take effect in 24 hours; however, when the stakes are raised, he finds himself in need of a faster-acting concoction…
This production has a brand new English translation from Chris Harris and David Eaton; it’s hard to describe how satisfying it is to hear things like “that smells minging” and “when the customer’s a twat” ringing out in true operatic fashion! The translation has been tailored specifically to the setting, so it incorporates the 1980s Barry setting but never loses the narrative or the musical style. This comic opera has seamlessly been transformed into a rom-com that’s incredibly funny and easy to engage with.
Amanda Mascarenhas has really come up trumps with her set design; act one takes place in Adina’s café, replete with light-up sign and a noticeboard full of 80s posters & adverts, whereas act two is outside on Barry Island, decorated simply with a banner and bench. It fits wonderfully in the traverse-ish setup at the King’s Head, allowing the audience to be flies on the wall.
The cast of five are all superb; what’s incredibly gratifying is their enunciation, which enables you to hear practically every word with great clarity – from my (admittedly fairly limited) experience with opera this is not a given, even with English translations, so kudos to the performers. Matthew Kellett is comedy gold as con artist Dulcamara, from his yuppie look to the full ‘I ♥ Barry’ – and superbly times his best lines. Themba Mvula is just threatening enough as Brandon (never overdoing his role as antagonist), and Caroline Taylor provides hilarious support as Gina – she’s cover Adina, and you get the feeling she’d have a great take on that role. Meanwhile, Alys Roberts is a no-nonsense Adina, always certain that she knows her own mind, until she spots Nicky in the company of another woman and starts to doubt herself. David Powton bares Nicky’s soul as he pines for Adina and regrets his shy demeanour, but really comes into his own when he thinks he has a bona fide love potion at his disposal.
This is a brilliant way to introduce audiences to (more) opera, as it’s very creative and beginner-friendly (it’s under two hours long!); this slice of sunshine & joy is the perfect antidote to a cold autumn evening.
My verdict? This rom-com opera is great fun and incredibly engaging – a ray of sunshine on a cold autumn evening.
The Elixir of Love runs at the King’s Head Theatre until 26 October 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.