The Elixir of Love at the Aotea Centre

By WILLIAM DART

Most of NBR New Zealand Opera's 80s take on Donizetti's The Elixir of Love works very well indeed. Weaving around Laura Hopkins' ingenious sets, including a school gym that hosts afternoon basketball games and delivers mirrorball disillusionment by night, director Daniel Slater brings the glitz and emotional immediacy of a Broadway musical to the opera stage.

Some details don't quite check out - would Adina really be reading about Tristan and Isolde in Vogue? Would Dulcamara be peddling such harmless placebos to these 80s teenagers? - but these prove passing niggles.

The young, fresh chorus sing and work the stage like their lives depend on it. The cool chicks pop their soda cans and the geek boys gape gormlessly while one of the teachers is the spitting image of Eve Arden in Grease 2. Cheerleaders launch the second scene and we have a basketball game in both four- and three-time. By the time the girls pursue Nemorino, I'm wondering whether we're in Auckland in 2004 or backstage at a Wham! concert.

In fact, the scene in which Giannetta reveals Nemorino's newly acquired wealth to her classmates is deliriously funny, beautifully pointed by Katherine Wiles, whose sly, cynical bitchery is one of the opera's assets.

Canadian soprano Rebecca Caine is an elegant Adina, if perhaps a little too sophisticated to be hanging around with the Clearasil set. While her tone isn't quite as Italianate as one might wish for, her musicianship is secure, and she's able to turn what sounds like tiredness in her final Prendi to dramatic effect.

If Riccardo Novaro nails the macho braggadocio of Belcore from the first bars of his swaggering Come Paride vezzoso, Riccardo Botto brings a real human dimension to the put-upon Nemorino.

Shuffling around like a young Bob Hoskins, dishing out some amusing slapstick turns, he surprises us as a broken-hearted triangle player in the prom band, and sings his arias like Adina credimi and Una Furtiva Lagrima with a passion that would melt the heart of Cruella De Vil herself.

Paul Whelan, in full leathers, is a lusty Dulcamara, unerring in his demanding patter songs, although, dramatically, the youth of the singer works against him.

From the first chords of the opera, conductor Graeme Jenkins brings a real glow to the Auckland Philharmonia. Not afraid to crack the whip when it comes to tempi, he's able to turn the company on a dime, with only a few shaky moments here and there, contributing much to this evening of enchanted and enchanting theatre.

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