Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore

Event: Donizetti’sL’Elisir d’Amore
Date: February 10, 2018, 12:00 pm
Run Time: 2 hours 39 minutes
Ticket Info: Tickets available at the door and online

Tickets for L’Elisir d’Amoreper adult • $22.00 online

Tickets for L’Elisir d’Amoreper student • $11.00 online


Italy, 1836. Nemorino, a young villager, is unhappily in love with the beautiful farm owner Adina, who he thinks is beyond his reach. The peasants, who have gathered around Adina, ask her what the book she is reading is about, and she tells them the story of how Tristan won the heart of Isolde by drinking a magic love potion. A regiment of soldiers arrives led by the pompous Sergeant Belcore, who immediately introduces himself to Adina and asks her to marry him. Adina declares that she is in no hurry to make up her mind but promises to think over the offer. Left alone with Nemorino, Adina tells him that his time would be better spent in town, looking after his sick uncle, than hoping to win her love. Or he should do as she does: change her affections every single day. Nemorino reminds her that one can never forget one’s first love.

Dulcamara, a traveling purveyor of patent medicines, arrives in the village advertising a potion capable of curing anything. Nemorino shyly asks him if he sells the elixir of love described in Adina’s book. Dulcamara claims he does and pulls out a bottle of Bordeaux. Though it costs him his last ducat, Nemorino buys and immediately drinks it. Dulcamara explains that he will have to wait until the next day—when Dulcamara will be gone—to see the results. Nemorino begins to feel the effect of the “potion” and, convinced he will be irresistible to Adina the next day, feigns cheerful indifference towards her. Surprised and hurt, Adina flirts with Belcore. When orders arrive for the sergeant to return immediately to his garrison, Adina agrees to marry him at once. The shocked Nemorino begs her to wait one more day, but she dismisses him and invites the entire village to her wedding. Nemorino desperately calls for the doctor’s help.

At the pre-wedding feast Adina and Dulcamara entertain the guests with a song. Adina wonders why Nemorino isn’t there. She doesn’t want to sign the marriage contract until he appears. Meanwhile, Nemorino asks Dulcamara for another bottle of the elixir. Since he doesn’t have any money left, the doctor agrees to wait so Nemorino can borrow the cash. Belcore is bewildered that Adina has postponed the wedding. When Nemorino tells him that he needs money right away, the sergeant persuades him to join the army and receive a volunteer bonus. Nemorino buys more elixir and suddenly finds himself besieged by a group of girls. Unaware of the news that his uncle has died and left him a fortune, he believes the elixir is finally taking effect. Adina feels responsible for Nemorino’s enlistment, but her concern turns to jealousy when she sees him with the other girls. Dulcamara boasts about the power of his elixir and offers to sell Adina some, but she is determined to win Nemorino in her own fashion.

Nemorino now feels sure that Adina cares for him: he noticed a tear on her cheek when she saw him with the other girls. Adina returns to tell Nemorino that she has bought back his enlistment papers. When he again feigns indifference, she finally confesses she loves him. Belcore appears to find the two arm in arm and takes his leave, declaring that thousands of women await him elsewhere. Dulcamara brags to the crowd that his miraculous potion can make people fall in love and even turn poor peasants into millionaires.

Notes by Zeke Hecker

Two people destined for each other but unwilling or unable to express their affection until brought together by a clever trickster: one of the oldest stories in the book, from Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing to innumerable Hollywood screwball comedies. In opera, you find it in Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s Le Devin du Village (yes, that Rousseau) and Mozart’s early Bastien and Bastienne. For the love-potion story we recall the medieval legend of Tristram and Iseult, which takes the potion at face value, and its reworking in Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, which implies that the potion is merely a device to liberate the passion which already smolders beneath the two characters’ surface hostility. The Elixir of Love superimposes the two templates in Felice Romani’s witty libretto and Gaetano Donizetti’s sparkling music.   

In his relatively short life (he died at age 50) Donizetti composed about 70 operas, a third of which are comedies. A quick worker, he whipped off L’Elisir d’amore in two weeks, stepping in when another composer failed to fulfill a commission. (In response to the news that Rossini had composed The Barber of Seville in three weeks, Donizetti is said to have replied, “Well, what do you expect?  He was always lazy.”) Romani based his libretto on Le Philtre by Eugene Scribe, itself taken from the recent Italian play Il filtro, in turn taken from a Roman one by Plautus. The Scribe libretto, set to music by Daniel Auber, was staged in Paris in 1831, a year before L’Elisir.  (Got all that?) 

L’Elisir’s bel canto tunefulness and charm place it at the opposite pole from Wagner’s stormy music drama, but in at least one respect it anticipates Wagner. As Andrew Porter points out, “Elisir tells a credible real-life version of the Tristan story: a potion not quite what it purports to be … breaks down inhibitions that have kept two loving souls apart. Under its influence, Nemorino becomes bolder, and Adina at length sheds her capriciousness and is won by his steady devotion.”

The Milan premiere was a huge success, despite (according to Donizetti, quoted by Romani’s wife), “a German prima donna, a tenor who stammers, a buffo who has a voice like a goat, and a French bass who isn’t up to much.” It remains one of the composer’s best-loved operas.