A startling production of The Elixir of Love premiered in Melbourne on April 21. An Italian opera from 1832 has turned up in western Victoria on the eve of the Great War. A scrim evokes the art of the Broken Hill primitives. When the lights come up, the set - animals included - is corrugated iron. The surtitles abound with slang and the music is punctuated with noises from the farmyard. Here is a vision for opera in the centenary of Federation, a confidence in Australian creativity that our political and business leaders are yet to attain.

One pinnacle of inventiveness are the sets from Michael Scott-Mitchell who has found his way out of the tyranny of squares through his design for folding hills. The twin peak is the tonally coordinated costuming from Gabriela Tylesova. Her flowered straw hats for the wedding party could launch a counter-revolution in haut couture.

The brilliance behind director Simon Phillips’s conception is realised in the look of the production more than in the performances. Besides the lack of the ensemble work needed to energise the story, the four principals have not adjusted their dramatics to draw the most from the local setting. In avoiding the caricatures of Dad and Dave, the cast are still to find the characterisations that will make Act One appear as relaxed as it needs to be in order to convince.

Thanks to Callas and Sutherland, Gaetano Donizetti is again honoured as much for his tragedies – Lucia and Anna Bolena - as for his comedies. The revival of his serious works are a reminder that the lighter pieces are studies in emotional contrast.

The appeal of The Elixir of Love depends on the performance of the shy suitor, Nemorino, a poor farm lad. Jorge Lopez-Yanez avoided coarseness and buffoonery but was too knowingly playful on first acquaintance for his naivete to find the nobility that his pure love commands. Lopez-Yanez could get clues for portraying the typical Australian bloke of that era from Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life. The piece works only if the transformation in Nemorino’s personality is apparent. Then, he can carry us to the depths and heights of his concluding aria, “A furtive tear”, where Lopez-Yanez was note perfect but lacked the warm tones for which touches of vibrato are welcome. His timbre is better suited for assertive parts, as he displayed shortly afterwards in the few lines of a military flourish.

Amelia Farrugia looked the well-to-do and worldly object of adoration, Adina, who sets the story going by ridiculing the legend of Tristan’s securing the love of Isolde by administering a love potion. For these early scenes, Farrugia could re-read Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career to get the balance of romance and bookish arrogance. She became happier in her higher notes and carried tints of coloratura to a fine finish. As Giannetta, Ali MacGregor, displayed a pertness which will win her attention.

The plainness of the first act duet between Nemorino and the travelling quack, Dr Dulcamara, gave little indication of the panache with which the buffo Conal Coad would lift his Act Two realisation of the latter role to a mastery of self-deception about the philtre’s efficacy and clear-headedness about its capacity to make him rich.

The male chorus enter reading the Town and Country Journal with WORLD AT WAR occupying all its front page. The arrival of a troop of light horse on a recruiting drive carries menace behind the swagger. Their leader, Belcore, is a sergeant in the uniform of a captain. Jeffrey Black’s singing was similarly uncertain of its rank, opening everywhere between bass and baritone before allowing speed to cover the creaks from which a largeness of hamming could not distract attention.

Conductor Julia Jones led the State Orchestra of Victoria through a score which too often merely doubles the vocal line, an encroachment on the singers’projection which was not always avoided. The men in the OA Chorus were no more ragged in their demeanour than in Sydney.

In place of the usual bottle of cheap red to intoxicate the innocent, the hoaxer dispenses a bottle of Coca-Cola as the cure-all. Director Simon Phillips has extended teenage trust in Coke as a prophylactic to make it an aphrodisiac. Had he continued the metamorphosis to re-brand it “Coca-Koala”, he would have asserted independence from the several cultural imperialisms that are the soft target of this evening of self-mocking fun and games.