L’elisir d’amore is a 2 act opera buffa (comic opera), in modern terms, a classic ‘rom com’ — both funny and touching, it will leave you uplifted and it is one of the most loved of all Donizetti’s operas. It combines touching romance and hilarious comedy with beautiful music, including Nemorino’s enchanting aria ‘Una furtiva lagrima’.
The opera’s premiere in Milan in 1832 was a triumph and secured Donizetti’s place as one of the leading Italian opera composers of his day.
The story centres on naïve Nemorino, who is besotted with the beautiful bar owner Adina. However, she torments him with her indifference and attaches herself instead to the experienced charmer Belcore. After hearing about the legend of Tristan and Isolde, Nemorino, in desperation, wonders if a love potion may be the answer to his prayers. He seeks the help of the traveling medicine man Dr. Dulcamara, who gives him ‘The Elixir of Love’. Is this the reason for Nemorino’s sudden popularity with every girl in the village? Will he gain Adina’s love before it’s too late?
Nemorino — a good-hearted but penniless waiter
Adina — a wealthy and beautiful bar owner
Belcore — experienced charmer and Nemorino’s rival
Dulcamara — a travelling (medicine man), who touts a dubious cure-all elixir
Giannetta — Adina’s friend and town gossip
Donizetti was a prolific composer, writing almost 70 operas in the course of his career, as well as numerous symphonies, songs, string quartets and a plethora of duets, oratorios, cantatas and other classical works.
His operas cover a wide range of subject matter, from charming comic tales such as this one, through Tudor-inspired historical dramas such as Maria Stuarda and Robert Devereux, to the blood soaked tragedy of Lucia di Lammermoor, and he enjoyed much success with all — both comic and serious.
Gaetano Donizetti by Josef Kriehuber (1842) and Felice Romani
How did the opera come about?
In 1830, Donizetti’s new opera Anna Bolena (based on the life on Tudor Queen Anne Boleyn) made a major impact on the Italian and international opera scene. After this success, he received a flurry of commissions which saw a huge outpouring of work in the years following.
In 1832, Donizetti set to work with librettist Felice Romani on his latest commission. Romani chose to use and modify an existing French text about a love potion, Le philtre (literally ‘The Potion’) by Eugène Scribe for this new opera’s libretto. (Le philtre had already been set to music by another composer the previous year, but such borrowing was common).
After only a few rehearsals, on 12 May 1832, the opera premiered in Milan and was a triumph, securing Donizetti’s place as one of the leading Italian opera composers of his day!
L’elisir d’amore is written in the bel canto style, which literally means ‘beautiful song’. Bel canto is all about exhibiting the beauty of the human voice. The orchestra functions to support the singer rather than to compete, and the orchestration is often quite sparse, leaving the voice exposed. This means that the singer’s intonation and vocal technique must be absolutely perfect, making bel canto a challenging style to master.
Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini were the three leading composers of the bel canto style during the first half of the nineteenth century.