L'Elisir d'Amore, Royal Opera House review ★★★★

Donizetti's opera about a love potion fizzes right out of the bottle at Covent Garden

Nadine Sierra makes her Covent Garden debut. Photo: Clive Garda
You could write the plot of L'Elisir d'Amore ('The Elixir of Love') on the label of a small medicine bottle, but that didn't stop composer Gaetano Donizetti spinning two hours of silken music out of a tiny knot of characters and events.

Nemorino adores land-owner Adina from afar. She isn't apparently interested – until he feigns indifference. Piqued into marrying a strutting officer, she panics when Nemorino doesn't intervene. And what's holding him up is his belief in a slow-acting love potion, sold by the visiting quack. Suddenly, he is in great demand with all the ladies. But it is money that is the aphrodisiac, and not the dubious potion at all...

Laurent Pelly's much-loved co-production for Covent Garden and Paris, first staged in London in 2007, pops up pretty much every other year, and many top names have passed through. For this revival, the American soprano Nadine Sierra makes the Covent Garden debut, as Adina, that was delayed by the pandemic. It's been worth the wait.

Bryn Terfel as Dulcamara, the quack who promises love. Photo: Clive Barda

In musical theatre they talk about the triple threat – can act, can dance, can sing. We may not know much about the dancing yet but Sierra's kittenish clambering over Chantal Thomas's hilarious haystack set suggests she can turn her hand – and feet – to most things, and she certainly brings character to the teasing role.

Her voice is simple thrilling, whizzing up and down Donizetti's elaborate lines effortlessly, clear as a bell, bubbling over with charm. She feels like a perfect fit for Italian opera, with successes at the Met and elsewhere already in the bag. But she is still a relative newcomer, and this is the time to catch her on the way up.

Her Nemorino is Armenian-born tenor Liparit Avetisyan, returning to this comic role with boyish ease. Just once in a while you might long for a little more Italian bravura, but his great Act II lament 'Una furtiva lagrima', lovingly sung amid soulful stars, brings the house down.

Nemorino (Liparit Avetisyan) pins his hopes on a love potion. Photo: Clive Barda

Covent Garden is like a second home to baritone Bryn Terfel, who plays the potion-peddling 'Doctor' Dulcamara. Rocking up in a ramshackle van in his slightly subdued Act I, he dons a red suit and comes alive in Act II, cheeky and commanding. Russian-born baritone Boris Pinkhasovich is hugely entertaining as the self-regarding sergeant Belcore.

Occasionally the tempi seemed to sag under the musical direction of Sesto Quatrini, also making his house debut, but there is larky playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and very game chorus work. Ben-San Lau's fortepiano continuo is skilful and droll.

Director Pelly sets Donizetti's opera in the 1950s, with scooters and bikes crisscrossing the village and visual references to lotions and potions that promise the earth. Some things never go out of fashion... But the tonic that really works is this production, here performed with heartening warmth. They should bottle it.

L'Elisir d'Amore is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Further performances are on 28 Sept, 3 and 5 Oct. Click here to book
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What L'Elisir d'Amore, Royal Opera House review
Where Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP
Nearest tube Covent Garden (underground)
When 22 Sep 23 – 05 Oct 23, Five performances, start times vary. Running time 2hr 45min
Price £10-£210
Website Click here for details and booking