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  1. Culture
7 March 2010

Anglo-Italian relations

A night of accidentally bilingual opera at ENO.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

To the ENO on Friday, to see Jonathan Miller’s production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. Working with a translation of the libretto by Kelly Rourke, Miller has transplanted the action from 19th-century Italy to 1950s rural America, setting it in and around a diner, with Nemorino, the lovelorn peasant, reimagined as a melancholic farmhand in cowboy boots.

And in Miller’s hands, Adina, the object of Nemorino’s ardour, becomes a blousy cross between Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, while Dulcamara, the itinerant medicine man, is played as a sweaty huckster in an Oldsmobile.

Miller’s updating of Donizetti’s opera is fertile enough, but on Friday it was given an extra turn by the absence through illness of both the tenor John Tessier (Nemorino) and his understudy.

This meant that the Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas had to be drafted in at extremely short notice. And since he hadn’t had time to learn Rourke’s new translation, Montvidas sang the part in Italian — a delicious linguistic collision exploited to considerable comic effect by the wonderful Andrew Shore as Dulcamara, who, alone among the cast, shuttled back and forth between English and Italian with astonishing dexterity.

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Sheer bravado and virtuosity for its own sake, of course, but an unalloyed triumph over adversity nonetheless.