Giannetta, one of the young village girls, and the farm workers are taking a break from their labors. Adina, a wealthy landowner is reading a book. She is admired from afar by the young peasant Nemorino, who is hopelessly in love with her. She bursts out laughing, and she explains to all that she is reading about how Tristan won the heart of Isolde by giving her a magic potion that made him irresistible! Nemorino yearns to have such a potion so that he may win Adina’s heart.
A platoon of soldiers headed by Sergeant Belcore arrives in the village. He gives Adina a bouquet of flowers and proposes marriage. Left alone with her, Nemorino repeats his declaration of love. Adina rejects his advances, saying that she is capricious and not the sort of woman for him.
Doctor Dulcamara, a traveling quack, arrives in the village. The doctor claims to have a cure for everything. Nemorino asks if he has any of Queen Isolde’s Potion. Dulcamara sells Nemorino a bottle of cheap Bordeaux, which will supposedly take effect within 24 hours—time enough for him to leave town! Nemorino drinks some of the supposed “potion” and becomes happily drunk.
Adina is confused by the change in his behavior. She is also astounded by his apparent indifference to her. Belcore returns and woos her. To annoy Nemorino, Adina promises to marry Belcore in a week. News arrives that Belcore and his detachment are to leave next day. To further annoy Nemorino, Adina agrees to advance the wedding to later that day. Nemorino begs her to wait 24 hours. Adina refuses and invites everyone to come to her wedding. Nemorino calls desperately for Dulcamara’s help.
The wedding celebrations are in progress. Adina wants to delay signing the marriage contract until Nemorino is present, then her revenge will be complete. Nemorino arrives in despair. He reasons that another dose of the “elixir” should help, but he needs money to buy it. Belcore suggests that he enlist in the army for cash. Nemorino signs the agreement and, with money in his pocket, goes in search of Dulcamara.
Meanwhile, Giannetta has found out that Nemorino’s rich uncle has died, leaving him a fortune. She and the village girls shower him with attention. Nemorino attributes this to the success of the potion. Adina tries to tell Nemorino that he has made a mistake by enlisting, but the girls drag him off to dance. Dulcamara tells Adina about his “elixir” and offers her some as well, as he sees that she loves Nemorino. Adina refuses the offer, saying that a tender glance will do the trick.
Adina tells Nemorino that she has bought him out of his army contract, and he can stay in the village. Finally, she admits she loves him. Nemorino is told of his sudden inheritance; Belcore accepts losing Adina; and Dulcamara tells the world that his elixir not only cures the lovesick, it also makes them rich!
“Donizetti’s Love Letter to Humanity”
At first glance, Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore appears to be a frothy confection filled with delicious melodies and comic turns. Perky peasants rejoice, boy gets girl, and a traveling quack gets rich through a magical potion. Yet underlying this sweetness, Donizetti explores the foibles of human behavior that resonate with today’s culture more than 185 years later.
A shy and illiterate peasant, Nemorino is hardly central casting for a romantic hero. Rather, he resembles the gawky post-adolescent who fears asking his crush to the prom. All he can see about himself is what he lacks in looks, education, and money. Although the elixir gives him false courage, Nemorino learns that it is his devotion, gentleness, and innate goodness that ultimately win the girl.
Proud, wealthy, and headstrong, Adina believes she can find fulfillment through outward appearances. Although she is attracted to Nemorino, she looks for a knight in shining armor who appears to be more her class equal—like the dashing Sergeant Belcore. The opinion of others and her own stubbornness lead her to accept Belcore’s marriage proposal even though the signs are there that he’s not the right man. Only when Adina allows herself to be totally vulnerable does she realize that what she seeks lies within her own heart.
Sergeant Belcore initially seems like a rock star to Adina and the villagers. However, his gallantry and military prowess mask his true character as a womanizer and bully. Armed with a sword and backed by regiment of soldiers, Belcore picks on Nemorino, the “weakling” of the village, both out of frustration and to show off. Although bullying has served him well in the past, Belcore loses his prized Adina to Nemorino’s gentleness and purity of intention.
Of all Donizetti’s characters in Elisir, Dr. Dulcamara perhaps speaks to us most directly today. He is the original snake oil salesman who makes outrageous promises he knows he cannot keep, selling an “elixir” that supposedly cures illness, restores youth, creates romance, destroys vermin, and brings prosperity. Dulcamara goes through life enriching his own coffers with no regard to the consequences of his actions on the lives of others. Yet the simple struggle of two young people to find love forces him to finally care. In the end, he, too, is transformed by a simple act of kindness.
We invite you to enter Donizetti’s pastoral world of L’Elisir d’Amore and enjoy how each character discovers their inner truth. Perhaps you will see someone you know in Adina and Nemorino’s struggle—or yourself. Although all may be simple folk from a distant time, they remind us that the most powerful elixir of all is love.
by Kirby Haugland
Ph.D. Musicology Candidate
Much like today, opera in the nineteenth century was a thoroughly international business. Composers and performers traveled to meet commissions and play the major theaters. Operas could be based on legends, books, plays, and even other operas; librettists reached across time and space for whatever seemed new and interesting. When L’Elisir d’Amore premiered at Milan’s Teatro Cannobbio in May 1832, its instant success helped launch Donizetti into this international arena. The year before, his serious opera Anna Bolena had established the 34-year-old composer as an heir to Rossini’s operatic crown. With Elisir, however, Donizetti’s music entered the perennial repertoire, joining Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in an emerging canon of works that would never go out of fashion. Donizetti and his librettist Felice Romani achieved this success by elevating what could have been a simple farce, blending humor with pathos, and setting both to irresistible melodies.
Romani based his libretto on Augustin Eugène Scribe’s text to Daniel Auber’s 1831 opera Le Phîltre (The Love Potion). Auber’s opera was quite popular and was performed at the Paris Opéra more than 240 times over the next three decades. It was a new type of French theater, a petit opéra, inspired by Italian styles and meant to pair with ballet on nights that the Opéra was not performing its enormous grand opéras. Scribe’s libretto was long thought to be based on an 1830 short story by the famed French author Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), who had also written a biography of Rossini a few years before. Stendhal’s story appeared in the literary journal Revue de Paris, described as “Le Phîltre, imitation of the Italian of Silvia Valaperta,” although this Italian author never existed. In truth, Stendhal’s story itself bears little resemblance to Scribe’s libretto, despite their shared title and chronological proximity. Both authors did, however, draw on earlier stories and tropes, such as the Italian theatrical tradition of commedia dell’arte, with its stock characters of lovers, soldiers, and doctors.
This made the French libretto a perfect resource for Romani and Donizetti, who distilled the material into their own potent elixir. They developed Scribe’s characters, making the farm boy Nemorino and the landowner Adina into more than a stereotypical simpleton and coquette. They did so by removing some of the cruel humor of Auber’s opera (such as a chorus of women ridiculing Nemorino when he asks for love or pity) and adding several new numbers that emphasize the characters’ humanity and sentiment.
Nemorino’s lilting cavatina “Quanto é bella” establishes his pastoral naïveté, while his tragic “Adina credimi,” begging for Adina to delay her marriage to the sergeant Belcore, proves that he cares not only for his own happiness, but for hers; he cannot bear to imagine her suffering the effects of the love potion after she has married another man. Donizetti reinforces the power of this entreaty by setting Adina’s response in the subsequent ensemble to Nemorino’s tune. Their relationship is further developed in their duet “Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera,” describing the natures that impel them, and in Adina’s cantabile “Prendi, per me sei libero,” in which she praises Nemorino’s honesty and affection, announcing that she has bought back his enlistment papers so that he can remain home and be happy.
None of these have much if any precedent in Scribe and Auber’s Phîltre. Nor does Nemorino’s quietly triumphant romanza “Una furtiva lagrima,” which he sings before the opera’s denouement, so moved by Adina’s stray tear that he is prepared to die happy. Romani’s widow claimed that the piece was inserted at Donizetti’s request, much to the librettist’s chagrin, who complained, “A romanza in this place chills the action! What is this simpleton peasant doing, coming here with a pathetic whimper, when everything must be festive and gay?” Romani capitulated, and all for the better, as the aria has become one of Donizetti’s most enduring. Its plaintive minor melody pivots to major as Nemorino declares, “She loves me!” That melody, first introduced by a solo bassoon over a quiet harp, epitomizes the “beautiful song” of bel canto opera and has made the aria a favorite for tenors from Caruso to Villazón.
For all the sentiment that its creators imbued it with, Elisir is still a comedy, and its buffo characters, the sergeant Belcore and the charlatan Dulcamara, bring plenty of laughs. Donizetti musically identifies the archetypal arrogant officer with blustering marches and patter song. Both features appear in the duet “Ai perigli della guerra,” where Belcore counters Nemorino’s melodramatic lyricism with his worldly perspective on a soldier’s love life. Belcore returns to this view in the opera’s conclusion, when he defiantly declares that he “will catch thousands and thousands” of women.
Dulcamara accomplishes his deception with both words and music. After the trumpet and chorus announce his first appearance, Dulcamara unleashes a torrent of claims about his product in the aria “Udite, udite, o rustici.” His words twist both in sound and meaning, his rhymes, alliteration, and assonance captivating the audience onstage and off. His comic duo with Adina, the so-called barcarola “Io son ricco e tu sei bella,” is in a square 2/4 meter, as opposed to the proper 6/8 time its genre calls for. Yet despite his utter fraudulence, Dulcamara is never chastened for his lies. His elixir does work in the end, even if only as a placebo giving Nemorino the courage to act. The barcarola’s melody returns in the opera’s finale, as the lovers and the town praise the Doctor’s magical elixir.
L’Elisir d’Amore inaugurated Donizetti’s most successful decade as a composer, during which he composed more international hits and traveled to Paris and Vienna. Even after his health declined, and he passed away in 1848, it endured as a comic classic of the operatic repertoire. It has remained so ever since.