Melodramma giocoso in 2 acts
Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Librettist: Felice Romani, after Eugène Scribe’s libretto for Le philtre, opera by Auber (1831)
First performed: Teatro della Canobbiana, Milan, 12 May 1832
Elisir was a rush job; the theatre commissioned the work after another composer defaulted. Librettist Felice Romani adapted the book of Auber’s Philtre, a hit in Paris, and Donizetti composed the music in a fortnight, occasionally borrowing from himself. And the cast, he feared, was inadequate.
“It bodes well,” he wrote to librettist Romani, “that we have a German prima donna, a tenor who stammres, a buffo who has a voice like a goat, and a French bass who isn’t up to much.”
He needn’t have worried; the opera was a smash hit.
“The style of this score is lively, and brilliant,” wrote the critic of the Gazzetta privilegiata di Milano. “The shading from buffo to serio takes place with surprising gradations and the emotions are handled with musical passion. The orchestration is always brilliant and appropriate to the situation. It reveals a great master at work, accompanying a vocal line now lively, now brilliant, now impassioned.”
Mayr, Donizetti’s teacher, thought it “inspired throughout with joy and happiness”.
Today, L’Elisir is Donizetti’s most popular opera, according to Operabase, and the 14th most performed opera in the world.
The opera is – like Rossini’s Gazza ladra (1817) and Bellini’s Sonnambula (1831) – a rustic comedy, tempered by sentiment. The setting is a Basque village, in the 18th century.
Nemorino, a poor farmer, is in love with Adina.
She’s outside his league: she’s rich, educated, and enjoys reading about Tristan and Isolde.
If only he had a magic love potion, Nemorino thinks! Belcore, a swaggering soldier, turns up, and tries to click with Adina; he gives her a bouquet, and expects her to give him her heart. When, he asks this girl he’s just met, will they get hitched? Adina’s amused by his conceit, but Nemorino worries that the gallant sergeant will sweep her off her feet.
Adina’s increasingly frustrated with the male sex; on the one hand, there are idiot jocks like Belcore, and on the other, there’s Nemorino. He’s a nice guy, but firmly in the friend zone. Why doesn’t he do something with his life, rather than follow her around like a sex-starved spaniel? “Go and see your rich uncle in the city,” she tells him; “when the old boy pops his clogs, you’ll scoop the lot. And stop being in love with me! Follow my example, and take a new lover each day!”
Nemorino, though, has other ideas – particularly when Dr. Dulcamara turns up in his caravan, advertising medicines that cure asthmatics, paralytics, and apoplectics; bumps off household vermin; straightens wrinkles; and turns old men into bright young things.
Does he, by any chance – Nemorino wonders – have the magic potion of Queen Isolde? Of course, says the quack; he’s the only one in the world who makes it – and hands Nemorino a bottle of Bordeaux, pausing only to take his life’s savings. “Drink this, and your girl will fall in love with you. Only it takes 24 hours to work (by which time I’ll have scarpered).”
Nemorino tries the “magic elixir”, then drinks some more, until he’s weaving around the place, singing, and flirting with the village maidens. Adina is dumbstruck, and announces that she’ll marry Belcore, in five or six days. No problem, Nemorino thinks; the elixir will work its magic long before then.
Change of plan: Belcore’s regiment has to leave the next morning, so they’ll get married that afternoon. Nemorino begs her not to; she’s making a terrible mistake, because the potion will kick in tomorrow!
Later the same day. Belcore has invited the villagers to a feast at Adina’s farm. While they tuck in, Dr. Dulcamara entertains the guests by singing a barcarolle duet with Adina: Senator Tredenti (“three-teeth”) tries to seduce a poor gondolier girl.
Nemorino wants to buy another bottle of magic potion, but doesn’t have the cash – so signs up as a soldier for 20 scudi. The village women, meanwhile, learn that his rich uncle has died, so Nemorino’s now the most eligible bachelor in the joint. Marry him!
Adina learns from Dr. Dulcamara exactly why Nemorino has been behaving so oddly…
….and Nemorino realises that she’s come to care for him. This is the opera’s hit song:
Adina buys Nemorino’s release from the army, and admits her love.
All ends happily (with a reprise of the barcarolle) as everyone celebrates the Doctor’s genius. Wine is a damn good thing!
Donizetti’s Elixir has been a favourite tipple for nearly two centuries. Grown in the fertile soil of Italy’s musical vineyards, and “full of the warm South”, it’s definitely a vintage wine.
It’s an opera with broad appeal. The ingredients are familiar: a rom com, with a happy ending; a nice guy in love with the smart girl, who won’t admit her feelings for him; a jock (Miles Gloriosus, a type going back to Plautus); and a clever, unscrupulous opportunist. But it all feels fresh.
It’s a comedy, but can turn serious in an instant. Nemorino’s drunkenness at the end of the first act is hilarious, particularly when played by a gifted comic actor like Matthew Polenzani or Roberto Alagna, but the fun stops with his poignant “Adina, credimi”. And the most famous number, “Una furtiva lagrima”, has a kind of wondering tenderness that’s honest and human. Donizetti, one feels, cares for his characters.
The Act I finale shows Donizetti’s ability to handle extended structures; it moves from a solo recit, to a duet, then a trio and a quartet, before ending in a classic bel canto big, noisy ensemble. And you will go out humming the barcarolle. (Which, for some reason, is stuck in my head as “Io ducati, e denti hai tu” – “I have gold, and you have teeth”.)
Above all, though, this is a feel-good opera. It ends with the young couple admitting their love, general rejoicing, and the audience giving a standing ovation.
As Dr. Dulcamara boasts of his wares, the Elixir can make the old feel young, set the dead on their feet, and put a smile on the faces of the miserable.
“Favourites as you are of the stars, I endow you with everlasting health, in thus dispensing the elixir among you. In it you will find contained mirth, fortune, health, and wealth. May you all remain young, and flourish. May you all grow fat and rich. Of your friend, the immortal Dulcamara, let the elixir ever remind you.”