The Welsh are coming! After a Don Pasquale set in Cardiff around a kebab van, we now have an Elisir set in a café in Barry – admittedly it is run by Italians. The Kings Head team have worked with Opera’r Ddraig from Cardiff to mount this brilliant updating of the Donizetti classic first performed in Milan in 1832, the year of the Great Reform Act. To cut the score down to 100 minutes and to use just five performers and a pianist, while preserving the essence of the music and making the jokes funnier, is little short of genius. While everyone involved deserves to share the credit, the sparkling – if a bit ‘sweary’ – new libretto is a major factor in ensuring that the comedy is really funny – and that the performers get lines that are properly ‘singable’. And Director Hannah Noone clearly knows the performance space at the Kings Head well – she ensures that the excellent singers get just the right chance to make their singing fit the demands of the space – the music is beautiful and the text is clear.
Nicky is a stoner loser (think Seth Rogen) who hangs around the café run by Adina (think Katherine Heigl). He has drunk umpteen cups of coffee there while trying to pluck up the courage to ask her out but, before he succeeds, Brandon – an old flame from her schooldays – turns up on leave from the navy and renews his over-eager attentions. “My body is as glorious as my flirting is notorious” he sings. Then he gets the call to return to his ship (to sail for the Falklands!) and on the spur of the moment asks Adina to marry him. To Nicky’s horror she says a hesitant ‘yes’. Into this scene arrives Dr Dulcamara selling quack remedies for almost anything. Nicky asks for a love potion (in the form of a body spray – think Lynx) that will make him irresistible to Adina. Though it is entirely ineffective – “like pheromones from beavers” gasps Adina in disgust – it boosts Nicky’s confidence and when her café pal Gina begins to take an interest in him Adina begins to wonder if she has made the right choice.
Nicky is sung to perfection by David Powton. He has exactly the right sort of tenor voice both for the role and for the small Kings Head space. From his very first aria (Quanto e bella in the original) his high sweet tenor sounds just right and when we get to “Una Furtiva Lagrima” the musical highlight of the opera, he is on top form. And in Kings Head regular Alys Roberts he gets an Adina worthy of his devotion. She is suitably spiky and dismissive in the first scenes and makes the most of her comic moments but as she begins to realise that it is Nicky not Brandon that is the man for her, Donizetti’s genius for mixing comedy and genuine emotion really comes through in her performance. Matthew Kellett is a nigh-on perfect Dulcamara for this production – his joyful opportunism as he works out what to call his elixir, and how much to charge for it, almost distracts us from what a good baritone voice he has. Themba Mvula has the right combination of swagger and self-doubt to make Brandon more than the cardboard lothario we sometimes get and Caroline Taylor sings the role of Adina’s sidekick with brio.
The whole thing is set in a serviceable cheap café – coffee and welsh cakes 90p! We get the full ‘I love Barry Island’ shtick and there is even a reference to Pontypridd – these people know South Wales! Music director, and co-librettist, David Eaton does wonders with the score from his piano and the whole thing rattles along to its inevitable happy ending – a comic opera from the 1830s is going nowhere else. This is another miniature masterpiece from the Kings Head opera team and their collaborators. See it to cheer yourself up in these desperate times!
- Music: Gaetano Donizetti
- Words: Chris Harris and David Eaton
- Director: Hannah Noone
- Musical Director: David Eaton
- Photography by Bill Knight
- Performers: Alys Roberts, David Powton, Matthew Kellett, Themba Mvula, Caroline Taylor.
- Venue: Kings Head Theatre
- Until: 26 October 2019
- Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes