‘Of all the comic operas I know, this one is absolutely perfect’

Opera Theatre Company’s Fergus Shiel on Donizetti’s Elixir of Love

'Trust me, I'm a scientist'

'Trust me, I'm a scientist'

FAMOUS FOR its spellbinding music and sublime arias, especially ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’, Donizetti’s ever-popular romantic comedy The Elixir Of Love has it all, from unrequited love, to devious deception and thwarted passion.

This timeless operatic classic is coming to the Town Hall Theatre on Tuesday December 9 at 8pm in an exciting and hugely entertaining new staging jointly produced by Opera Theatre Company and Northern Ireland Opera.

The Elixir of Love revolves around the efforts of love-struck peasant Nemorino to win the heart of wealthy land-owner Adina. In this production though, NI Opera’s innovative director Oliver Mears updates the action, transferring it to a modern university campus, where Adina is a lecturer and Nemorino, a nerdy student. Desperately in love with Adina, Nemorino is conned by fraudster Dr Dulcamara to buy fake love potion, pledging himself to the army in order to pay for it.

‘Do it in a way that makes it resonate with people’

“This production is larger than a lot of shows we have done before,” OTC artistic director Fergus Shiel, who also conducts the production’s orchestra and professional chorus, tells me. “We have a 12-piece professional chorus, five in the cast, 12 in the orchestra, and another 10 or so people backstage, so the scale is very large, about 40 people in all. OTC shows in the past tended to have only five or six singers, this one has 17 singers onstage.

“It very much fits with what the company has done in terms of making opera accessible both in bringing it around the country, thus making it accessible geographically and physically, but also that the productions are accessible - they’re engaging and exciting and lively. Sometimes you think of opera productions as being physically remote, they’re in big theatres, you can be sitting far away from the singers, but we are up close and the audience feels very much attached and close to the action.”

The Elixir Of Love also marks the first time OTC and NI Opera have collaborated on a production.

“Northern Ireland Opera is a relatively new company, it’s about three or four years old,” Shiel notes. “This has been in the planning for about two years. In the past OTC has performed a lot in Northern Ireland and so would have a great familiarity with the opera scene there and its theatres. Once NI Opera was set up by the NI Arts Council we were very keen to work with them. The collaboration has worked out very well, we’re very pleased with the outcome.”

OTC Elixir Of Love.

Shiel explains why the opera is set on a university campus.

“The original story is set in a rustic Italian village and Adina is from one of its wealthy families, she is educated and can read whereas the other characters are all peasants,” he begins. “Nemorino, who falls in love with her, is from a much lower class. We decided to do it in a way that would make it resonate with people more. We thought about that imbalance in their relationship so we set it as a mature student/teacher thing where Adina is the teacher, she is further up the ladder in terms of her life and career.

“It proved to be a nice transportation, it makes the opera feel a lot more close to people and life here, we’ve all been to school or college and can recognises these situations. It also gives a chance to highlight some of the humour in the story and the relationships between the chorus and Nemorino.

“We have a scene, where in the original there is a group of girls who bring news that Nemorino’s uncle has died leaving him his money and suddenly the guy everyone thought was insignificant has become rich, and immediately all the girls are interested in him. We have it set in a basketball practice session and the girls are all bouncing their basketballs and talking to each other saying ‘Did you hear the latest news, Nemorino’s uncle has died’ so it’s a nice updating of the scene.”

‘Donizetti has his own way of doing things’

Donizetti is sometimes tasked for lacking substance but Shiel argues such criticism is unjust.

“I definitely think Donizetti is hugely underrated,” he asserts. “Every musician of genius whether it be in opera, classical music, rock music or whatever, has their own particular way of working. You’re not going to compare somebody who sings classically with a pop star because they’re very different. Donizetti has his own individual way of doing things.

“In some senses you can say the music is light, but we have to look for what he is very, very, good at. What he’s really good at is melody, and at writing something that fits the human voice. It always fascinates me that Elixir of Love was written in 1832, not far off 200 years ago, and yet the music fits the human voice like a glove. With Anna Patalong, our soprano, it’s like the music was written for her, it’s so beautifully written and it fits her voice so beautifully and the same with the rest of the cast.

“If you look for the right things you’ll be rewarded; look for the melody and the sense of drama, look for the comedy. And because we are singing it in English people will understand every single word. Of all the comic operas I know this one is absolutely perfect, it’s just one event after another, things are constantly changing, the mood shifts constantly, one minute things are going one way, the next they are going another, and it’s all there in the music which is what I love about it. It’s not one of those operas where the music is like a backing track, here the music is generating the drama.”

OTC Elixir of Love Basketball.

Like Nemorino, Donizetti himself experienced a rags-to-riches life. His family were poor and it was not until he found success as an opera composer in his 20s that he achieved financial comfort. Also like Nemorino, he narrowly avoided being conscripted into the army.

“Those experiences definitely informed his portrayal of Nemorino,” Shiel observes. “Donizetti had a wealthy relation who bought him out of the army just as in the opera Adina ends up buying Nemorino out of the army. Nemorino is a wonderful character, you can really relate to him. That’s another thing that is great about the opera, despite the fact that it is fun and entertaining there is that serious love story running right through it and you really feel for the characters. When it gets to that final duet when they finally get together you feel ‘oh great, it’s finally worked out!’ I do think Nemorino is quite autobiographical.”

The cast for The Elixir Of Love is led by Anthony Flaum (Nemorino ), Anna Patalong (Adina ), and Irish soprano Sarah Reddin, along with John Molloy (Dulcamara ), and James McOran Campbell as Belcore, the lusty army recruitment officer.

“Both Anthony and Anna are new to the company, as is James McOran Campbell as Belcore, all three are new to audiences in the Republic of Ireland,” Shiel reveals. “John Molloy has done a lot with OTC and he’s a wonderful bass singer. Sarah Reddin is also making her OTC debut in the show. The set and costumes are very colourful and engaging. I think it will be a great evening’s entertainment.”

Tickets €30/25 and are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie

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