Donizetti’s comic opera L’Elisir d’Amore has been performed frequently throughout the opera world since its premiere in 1832. The Met has done it 302 times. Despite its ubiquity it sometimes seems like a tenor aria in search of an opera so popular is ‘Una furtiva lagrima’. That this search is typically successful speaks to the excellence of the music set to Felice Romani’s libretto adapted from Eugène Scribe’s book for Daniel Auber’s Le philtre (1831). Donizetti wrote the score in six weeks, which was a lengthy span for the facile composer. His output is staggering. About 75 operas, 16 symphonies, 19 string quartets, 193 songs, 45 duets, 3 oratorios, 28 cantatas, instrumental concertos, sonatas, and other chamber pieces. All this in less than 30 years. His last two years of life were disfigured by advanced neurosyphilis. He was 50 when he died.
Despite being a tenor’s opera, L’Elisir d’Amore has good parts for soprano, baritone, and basso buffo. It’s the story of a country bumpkin – let’s face it, he’s the village idiot – who’s crazy in love with the richest and best looking woman around. She secretly has feelings for him which are disguised until the end of the opera when for some inexplicable reason she declares her love for him. Her decision is said to be independent of his inheritance of a fortune from an uncle who conveniently died after the big tenor aria.
Most of the story concerns the misfortunes that the loveable moron has brought on himself. These include spending all his money on cheap red wine which he told is the same elixir of love that got Tristan and Isolde in such an amorous pickle. The itinerant huckster who sold Nemorino (tenor) the potion told him it would take 24 hours to have an effect by which time he (Dr Dulcamara basso buffo) would be gone. Nemorino promptly drinks the potion. Emboldened by the “elixir” (in fact, drunk), Nemorino feigns indifference when he encounters Adina (soprano), as he expects that the elixir will facilitate his conquest of Adina the next day. She becomes increasingly annoyed. Sergeant Belcore (baritone) proposes marriage to Adina. Upset by Nemorino and wishing to give him a lesson, Adina falsely promises to marry Belcore in six days. Yet, Nemorino only laughs in response; the potion will have worked its magic in just one day. When Belcore learns that his regiment must leave the next morning, Adina promises to marry him before his departure. This of course panics Nemorino, who cries out for Dr. Dulcamara to come to his aid. Adina, meanwhile, invites everyone to the wedding.
The finale linked below starts with Nemorino’s distress when he thinks Adina will be married before his love potion will take effect. She has no intention of wedding a baritone though Nemorino is too dim to realize what’s happening. He wants Dr Dulcamara to help him. In the next and last act the tenor enlists in Belcore’s troop and use his signup bonus to buy more elixir. Adina buys out his enlistment contract from Belcore to keep the sweet nincompoop in town and allow the inevitable happy ending.
Donizetti’s comic operas are gentler than Rossini’s. The older composer (by just five years) revels in the lunacy of human existence. His humor is in the same territory as that of the Marx Brothers. Donizetti’s comedies take a sweeter turn and allows relief from the madness of life. Adina and Nemorino will live happily ever after.
The excerpt presented here is from the complete 1970 recording of the opera featuring Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti. Richard Bonynge conducts.