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Interview: Giles Havergal

Giles Havergal is the Director of Scottish Opera's production of The Elixir of Love. Here he gives some of his thoughts on the opera and how he approached the staging.


Scottish Opera: How did you decide to stage this production?

Giles Havergal: Russell Craig, the Designer, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the setting. We both thought the action would unfold in one place, which has to be very rustic. The story hinges on the simplicity of a farmboy, Nemorino, who is in love with Adina. The Elixir of Love is really just a bottle of wine, though Nemorino has been fooled into thinking it will make Adina love him. So you have to create a very simple setting in which this kind of mistake is possible, and this made us think of two things. First, think of an area of Italy where wine was not generally drunk. We thought of rural northern Italy, and, to make the point, at the beginning of the opera the harvest the villagers are bringing in is actually apples, not grapes. Second, we decided to use just one set, where changes in the lighting create atmosphere and different times of day, and so that the action can stay very fluid.


SO: When is the production set?

GH: Russell and I felt that 1830, when the opera was written, wasn't appropriate to our chosen setting so we've updated the production to the late 19th century. We were both very influenced by the early sections of the Bertolucci film called 1900. To be honest, the peasantry looked pretty much the same from 1830 to 1914, and the only person who is wearing anything even faintly fashionable is Adina.


SO: What do you like best about the opera?

GH: The part of the story that makes this such a delightful and intriguing opera is what happens between the two main characters, Adina and Nemorino. She is the proprietor of the farm on which Nemorino works. She has been attracted to him and he has been in love with her really, I imagine, since childhood. The story revolves around the fact that he is just desperately in love with her and she keeps on saying, 'Keep your distance, I need to play the field’, which she then does when a rather bombastic soldier comes to the village, and which Nemorino does completely by chance in the second act. The relationship between Adina and Nemorino is very subtle because you have to see that they are deeply attracted to each other but they both need to go somewhere else emotionally in order to come back. I think that's very interesting and I also think that's very truthful.


SO: The non-singing role of Gaetano isn’t in the original opera? Why have you introduced him for this opera?

GH: The quack doctor Dulcamara arrives with his pantechnicon of potions and lotions, all of which are completely false. Of course, he is a total charlatan but this means he can prevail on the rustics. They see that he is very grand. They see his coach, his top hat and his rich clothes and they think he is very important. Again, this is part of the simplicity of the surroundings that Donizetti is trying to describe in the main setting of the piece. But the words of Dulcamara’s great number – basically a salesman’s number – are very detailed and it seemed to me that it might be fun to see some of these things as well as hear about them. Somebody has also got to sell the bottles. So I thought it might be fun to have a very active but dumb assistant while Dulcamara is singing this incredibly complex material. Dulcamara also has many asides and it seemed more interesting to me if he sang them to somebody rather than constantly speaking to the audience.


SO: You are very interested in the libretto – the words – of the opera. Why do you consider this libretto to be of a higher quality than others?

GH: The reason why this opera is so popular and delightful is partly because the music is amazingly humane, and bubbly and delicious, but also because it is attached to a really good story. The libretto is very deftly put together by Romani, an unsung librettist – as all librettists are except Mozart’s Da Ponte and Richard Strauss’s Hofmannstahl. Not only is the dramaturgy – the way the scenes and the numbers interlock – very skilfully done but the words the characters sing are very entertaining. Romani puts into the mouths of these very simple peasants slightly elevated language in a sort of ironic way. In particular, this is true of Belcore, the bombastic sergeant who arrives in the town and briefly steals Adina’s heart – or she makes him think that he has. He has wonderful classical allusions in his song to her, saying that him giving flowers to her is like Paris giving the golden apple to Venus – all of which is quite funny in an Umbrian mountaintop village. The libretto has lots of little details which are very skilfully added too. Part of the plot hinges on the fact that the farmhand Nemorino is left money by his uncle and becomes amazingly rich, which means all the girls, having turned their backs on him and thinking him a lumpkin, suddenly are all mad about him. The character that leaves him the money is his uncle. Early in the piece Adina says that he ought to go and look after his uncle as he is dying, and if he dies he may leave his money to someone else, so that information is placed in the story. Then later, when Nemorino says he has to leave his family, he again mentions his uncle, so somewhere in the audience’s perception, the uncle is, in effect, on stage. A lesser librettist would have had him say, ‘I have to leave my family’, he wouldn't have specified uncle the second time. So the audience think 'Uncle, we heard about him’, and the payoff is the uncle has died and left him the money. This is very skilled dramaturgy. The libretto is full of little things like this, which are delicious and let the work make total dramatic sense, which for me is a rather important part of opera.