“A virtuosic show that delights all, with a refreshing dose of fun and light-heartedness”Tristan Selden

I was left charmed, enthralled, and utterly amazed by the Cambridge University Opera Society (CUOS) Lent mainshow L’Elisir D’Amore (‘The Elixir of Love’), composed by Gaetano Donizetti and performed with the original Italian libretto by Felice Romani Donez. The show was brilliantly sung and staged, marrying the technical excellence of Cambridge’s best singers and orchestral musicians (under the baton of Edward Reeve) with clever direction and fantastic comedic acting.

The opera’s original setting of the Basque country around the end of the 18th century was transposed to a timeless European provinciality, where rustics meet in the village square to gossip and exchange haberdasheries. Nemorino, a sullen and hopelessly love-sick swain, is hopelessly in love with Adina, the brightest and hottest girl in town. Adina spends her days teasing Nemorino and reading the famous romance of Tristram and Isolde.  Suddenly, the dashing sergeant Belcore makes an entrance, immediately getting the attention of the coquettish Adina. When he is forced to leave the following day for battle, Adina promises to marry him immediately (if anything just to annoy Nemorino) and her poor peasant admirer resorts to buying off the quack doctor Dulcamara a magic love potion. Unlike with Tristram and Isolde, the draught is nothing but the dated equivalent of Sainsbury’s basics wine, and the real magic comes instead in Act Two when Nemorino’s uncle dies and bequeaths to him a large fortune, turning him into the most dashing bachelor the village girls have ever seen. Ridiculous but touching, the opera’s characters all feistily pursue their desires but undergo some hilarious reversals along the way.

The five solo singers were all exceptional. Henry Websdale played a wonderfully awkward and tragic Nemorino, so shy to converse with his heart-throb that he had to urge the harpsichord to give him a spread chord several times before plucking up the courage to perform his recitative to her. Websdale’s handling of the famously challenging Aria ‘Una furitva lagrima’ was commendable, with a beautiful fulness of vocal tone and understated gestures.  Anna Wagner sung exquisitely as Adina, with great technical flare as well as real emotional range in her timbre. Wagner’s Italian was by far the best, and her stage presence was at all times captivating. James Quilligan as Dulcamara, Louis Wilson as Belcore, and Olivia Brett as Giannetta all sung fantastically in their supporting roles. I particularly loved Brett and Quilligan’s expressive exaggeration in the way they performed their melodramma giocoso characters. Wilson could possibly have developed even further his facial expressivity and vocal colouring. The rest of the cast were highly engaging in the way they brought out funny, eccentric details during their chorus numbers, and sounded wonderfully free and blended.

The technical aspects of the performance were also highly commendable. The lighting was simple and naturalistic, but worked very effectively in the switch to dappled twilight in Act Two. The set design by Christine Hatton was an intriguing blend of realism – a garden bench, wooden shed, flower beds – and symbolism – three gorgeous red ribbons draped from the gods, a red chair and the red book of Tristram and Isolde. The colour seems to represent the elixir itself, a totally imaginary but nonetheless pervasive and powerful emotion that all feel the sway of: love, of course! The costume for L’Elisir D’Amore by Gwen Davis was fanciful, with modern boots, fifties florals, Victorian lapels, velvet military coats and everything in between.

Overall, the show was really impressive, fully deserving four and half stars. The Director Judith Lebiez and Musical Director Edward Reeve have succeeded in bringing together a virtuosic show that delights all, with a refreshing dose of fun and light-heartedness. L’Elisir D’Amore is a funny, silly, sentimental and superbly executed show – what more could any opera lover possibly ask for?

L’Elisir D’Amore is on at the West Road Concert Hall until 24 February