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Brilliant, witty, fearless and often petulant, Jonathan Miller gives good interviews. Last week he told the New York Sun that experiencing Anthony Minghella’s massively publicised production of Madama Butterfly at the Met was “like receiving a maple-syrup enema”. He told The New York Times that Julie Taymor’s Zauberflöte was an “abomination” predicated on “silly, glamorous, folkloric nonsense”.

Meanwhile Miller was busy staging L’elisir d’amore at the New York City Opera, which, the director complained, pays him barely enough to cover expenses. Abandoning Donizetti’s bucolic milieu – “pastoral piffle”, according to one interview – he forwarded the inaction to the American Midwest of the 1950s. The rather grim setting, originally designed by Isabella Bywater for the Royal Swedish Opera, became Adina’s Diner – evoking echoes of Despina’s Diner, the locale invented by Peter Sellars for his Così fan tutte in 1984.

The quirky-clever charade was fun for a while, with the hero impersonating a grease-monkey and the quack-doctor emerging as a snake-oil salesman. Unfortunately the one-trick concept, embellished with updated jargon surtitles and toilet gags, wore thin quickly and lacked sentiment and charm.

The performance also tended towards blandness, with George Manahan beating time rapidly for an untidy orchestra, and a modest cast enacting Miller’s would-be-mod rituals dutifully. Anna Skibinsky tended toward stratospheric shrillness as Adina, opposite the tenorino-Nemorino of John Tessier. Jan Opalach offered snazzy-clumsy bluster as Dulcamara, while Paulo Szot sang roughly while practising Elvis imitations in Belcore’s army uniform. The amplified sound, intentionally grotesque for a distortion of the barcarolle duet, suggested a tinny radio transmission in, yes, the quaint 1950s.

Although unabashedly and refreshingly critical by nature, Miller calls professional critics “parasitic invertebrates”, “midgets talking into loudspeakers” and “tsetse flies”. He may be right. He left at least one tsetse fly unhappy at Lincoln Center on Saturday. ★★☆☆☆

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