L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love)
Nemorino, a young peasant
Adina, a wealthy landholder
Belcore, a regimental sergeant
Dulcamara, a traveling medicine peddler
Giannetta, a peasant girl
Peasants and Soldiers
Romantic love may be a relatively recent development in human history, as anthropologists contend, but it has been around long enough that its difficulties are universally familiar. “The course of true love never did run smooth,” Shakespeare tells us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and countless poets, novelists, and songwriters since his day have concurred. So painful are love’s trials, so vexing its caprices and irrationality that we can hardly wonder at the notion of mastering the heart’s desires through magical or alchemical intervention.
This, too, has been a favorite theme of poets. Returning momentarily to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we find Shakespeare imagining a rare flower whose nectar, rubbed on the eyes of any sleeper, induces amorous passion for the first creature spied upon waking. But the most influential story of a supernatural inducement to love predates Shakespeare by several centuries. This is the medieval romance of Tristan and Iseult, who drink a potion brewed to ensure the latter’s love for her betrothed, Cornwall’s King Mark, and fall desperately, helplessly, and tragically in love with each other.
Revival of interest in the medieval romances became an underlying inspiration for the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, which even took its name from the old tales of love, valor, and magic. And none of those stories gripped the Romantic imagination more powerfully than the Tristan legend. Among other things, it provided the subject for that quintessential Romantic opera, Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Wagner, a profoundly serious artist, treated his story as a parable of love, alienation, and transcendence. But the most earnest subjects have a way of begetting comic treatments. A Midsummer Night’s Dream gives the love-potion idea a humorous twist — actually, several humorous twists. So, too, does Gaetano Donizetti’s sparkling comic opera L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love).
Donizetti (1797-1848), the leading Italian composer active during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, applied his talents to both dramatic and humorous stories. In L’elisir d’amore, composed and first performed in 1832, he and his librettist, Felice Romani, lampoon the legend of Tristan and Iseult, which is invoked in the opera’s opening scene. The satirizing of a venerable love story, the droll characters that populate L’elisir d’amore, and the various twists and turns of its plot make for a delicious comic confection. Musically, the work enjoys Donizetti’s foremost virtue as a composer, his ability to convey situations and emotions through supremely melodious music. L’elisir d’amore boasts several splendid arias and ensembles, the most famous being Nemorino’s aria Una furtiva lagrima. Its melody is well known, thanks largely to the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, who made it something of a signature number and widely famous a century ago.
In a field, a group of peasants rest from their labors while the farm’s young owner, Adina, sits reading. One of the peasants, Nemorino, is in love with her but despairs of ever winning the lady. The tale Adina is reading provokes her to laughter. It is the story of Tristan and Iseult, and the notion of a love potion that guarantees undying love strikes her as absurd. At their urging, she reads a passage to the curious peasants.
Just as Adina finishes reading, a platoon of soldiers passes. At its head is Belcore, whose self-confidence contrasts strikingly with Nemorino’s hesitancy. Eyeing Adina, he presents her a floral bouquet, declares his love, and proposes marriage to her. The lady meets his swagger with her own self-assurance, saying that she wants time to consider his suit.
The soldiers and peasants depart, but Nemorino lingers to speak with Adina. She, knowing his feelings, advises that he cease his sighing and return to the city to attend his sick uncle. Nemorino replies that his uncle’s condition is nothing compared his own heartache. Adina tries to warn him away. Though he is kind and modest, she tells Nemorino, she is fickle and will always seek new love and pleasure. Her heart is like a cloud, moving and changing with the breeze. He counters that his love is like a river, running unalterably to the sea.
The scene changes to the village square. The townsfolk are drawn by a trumpet call announcing the arrival of a traveling medicine seller, Doctor Dulcamara. In a brilliant “patter aria,” he extols the benefits of his concoctions, which miraculously cure any affliction imaginable. Nemorino, having decided the magical elixir that bound Iseult to Tristan is his only chance of gaining Adina, timidly asks Dulcamara if this potion can be had. But of course, the mountebank replies, the very one. And he produces a bottle of what we learn, in an aside, is merely wine. He cautions that a day must pass after drinking the elixir before it works its magic. Nemorino gladly pays his last cent for it.
After Dulcamara departs to a nearby inn, Nemorino happily drinks the “elixir” he has purchased. He is beginning to feel its effects when Adina happens by. Confident of the love potion’s power, Nemorino treats her casually. His apparent indifference irks Adina — so much so that she decides to punish him by flirting with Belcore, who comes upon the scene. When Nemorino remains insouciant, she raises the stakes by accepting Belcore’s marriage proposal. Still Nemorino appears unconcerned. Soldiers and villagers arrive with news that the regiment has been ordered to leave early the next morning, so Adina and Belcore agree to advance their wedding to later that day. Nemorino’s confidence vanishes, and he begs Adina not to marry before the coming day. She ignores his plea, and Belcore invites everyone to the wedding.
At a banquet preceding their wedding, Adina and Belcore entertain the guests by singing a duet. A notary arrives to officiate the ceremony, but Adina does not want to proceed without Nemorino present. After all, her purpose in marrying is to punish him. But when the assembly leaves for the chapel, she has no choice but to follow. Only Dulcamara remains behind, availing himself of the leftover food.
Nemorino enters and begs Dulcamara for a potion that will take effect immediately. The latter assures him that doubling the dose of the original elixir will produce the desired effect, but Nemorino has already consumed the entire bottle and has no more money. Dulcamara agrees to wait an hour at the inn while Nemorino tries to borrow enough for a second purchase.
Belcore returns, puzzled by Adina’s refusal to sign the wedding contract. Seeing the downcast Nemorino, he inquires as to his trouble. Nemorino explains that he needs money immediately but has no way to get it. Belcore replies that his regiment pays an enlistment bonus of twenty scudi, and he praises the joys of military life. Nemorino signs the enlistment papers, and each man expresses satisfaction: Belcore that his rival will soon be far from Adina, Nemorino that his dream of winning her is still alive.
Later, the village girls share the news that Nemorino’s uncle has died and left his estate to his nephew. When the young man enters, having consumed another bottle of Dulcamara’s love potion, the girls fawn over him, a development Nemorino attributes to the magic elixir. Adina enters and soon becomes jealous over Nemorino’s new-found popularity among the girls. Dulcamara, amazed at the turn in Nemorino’s fortunes, wonders if he actually did give the young man a love potion. In any event, after Nemorino and the girls leave for the ball, he touts its efficacy to Adina. She, learning of all that Nemorino has done in hopes of winning her, now realizes that she loves him. Dulcamara offers to sell a love potion to Adina, but she refuses. Better than any elixir of love, she sings, is her own magic: a tender glance, a little smile, a caress.
The opera’s final scene begins with Nemorino alone. He spied a tear in Adina’s eye when they were last together, and he is sure that she now loves him. Adina approaches, but he again feigns indifference. She hands him his enlistment papers, which she has purchased from Belcore, and urges him to remain in his hometown, among people who appreciate him. Nemorino asks if she has more to say. When she declines to add anything, he declares that he would rather die a soldier than live without love. Adina finally surrenders and confesses that she loves him, and they embrace joyfully.
The remainder of the cast enters. Belcore quickly recovers from finding the young pair in each other’s arms. After all, he says, there are plenty of other women in the world. Dulcamara announces the news of Nemorino’s inheritance, of which neither Adina or Nemorino were aware. He then takes the opportunity to acclaim his elixir’s amazing power. Nemorino and Adina sing of their happiness, and the villagers praise Dulcamara as he departs.