The online opera guide and synopsis to Elisir d’amore
Donizetti wrote the opera in incredible 13 days. Together with his Don Pasquale and Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia, Elisir d’amore forms the luminous triumvirate of the best Italian buffo operas of the 19th century (Csampai/Holland).
OVERVIEW AND QUICK ACCESS
♪ Act I (The rural-scene, the village-scene)
♪ Act II (The marriage-scene)
Roles and Synopsis
Felice Romani, based on Eugène Scribes Roman Le philtre
The main roles
Adina, rich and capricious tenant (soprano) - Nemorino, simple-minded young peasant(tenor) - Belcore, sergeant and recruiter (baritone) - Dulcamara, a quack (bass)
DG with Luciano Pavarotti, Kathleen Battle, Leo Nucci, Enzo Dara conducted by James Levine and the Chorus and Orchestra of the New York Metropolitan Opera or as a television recording: ERATO, with Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, Leo Nucci, Ildebrando d'Arcangelo conducted by Alfred Eschwé and the Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera.
Donizetti was a prolific composer. 70 operas are counted in his comparatively short compositional period of less than 30 years. To reproach him for this large number would be unfair, because the legal situation clearly disadvantaged the composer. When the works were delivered, the composer had the right to a one-off compensation. The exploitation rights then lay with the publisher or impresario. The protection of intellectual property developed only later in the years of Verdi. Donizetti was a freelance composer without any patron in the background. Thus, he had to create two or three works each year to make a living. The prima donnas were much better off, and their compensation was several times higher than that of the composer.
Of course, there are mediocre works in Donizetti’s oeuvre. But some of his operas are masterpieces. Four works stand out in particular: Along with “La fille du régiment,” “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “Don Pasquale,” “Elisir d’amore” is among Donizetti’s greatest and one of the great musical comedies in opera history.
The genesis of Elisir d’amore
Donizetti wrote the opera in an incredible 13 days. The time pressure stemmed from the fact that a composer at Milan’s Teatro alla Canobbiana (the city’s second popular theater, along with La Scala) was unable to complete his commissioned work in time, and the theater therefore needed an alternative at short notice. The impresario asked Donizetti to revise an existing opera. Donizetti did not want to do this, because shortly before he had had to accept a flop in the Lombard capital with “Ugo, conte di Parigi” at the neighboring La Scala and he wanted to make up for this mistake. It was agreed that a new work should be created. The librettist Romani was commissioned to create a libretto within seven days! This was only possible because Romani took a existing story from the French language by the prolific writer Eugen Scribe. The compositional technique of the time was based on fixed formulas. Of course, Donizetti also had a stock of sketches and melodies that he could pull out of the drawer at any time.
It is interesting to note Donizetti’s autographs, because we see that he wrote out only the vocal lines, in addition to which he noted the bass lines to indicate the harmonic progression. To this he added remarks on how to orchestrate. The copyist then wrote out the parts and completed the score under Donizetti’s supervision. During the rehearsals, the final touches were made.
When the opera was premiered on May 12, 1832, Donizetti experienced one of the most brilliant moments of his career. The ovations of the audience were gigantic, and the reviews of the newspapers were overwhelming. Donizetti thus brilliantly confirmed the success he had achieved with “Anna Bolena” two years earlier, finally becoming Italy’s leading opera composer on a par with his friend and rival Bellini.
Synopsis: On a farmstead in a Basque village. Farm workers rest under the tree, during a break from work.
The curtain opens with a pastoral scene of villagers singing to a dance-like melody.
Bel conforto al mietitore – Levine
Synopsis: Nemorino is a shy and somewhat simple-minded peasant. He is in love with the wealthy, handsome owner Adina. He is depressed because Adina pays no attention to him.
In this cavatina (a songlike aria), Donizetti paints a simple, thoughtful man in love. In simple C major, Nemorino sings of his longing for Adina’s love. Only at “Essa legge, studia…” (“She read, studies…”) do we hear a minor-key haziness, implying that Adina’s education may make her unattainable to Nemorino.
We hear Luciano Pavarotti in this recording. The role of Nemorino was one of his absolute favourite roles. In this role he celebrated real triumphs in many opera houses. The vocal subject requires a lyrical tenor and the role a simple, but mischievous rascal, which simply suited Luciano Pavarotti perfectly.
Quanto è bella, quanto è cara – Pavarotti
Adina tells the legend of the love potion from “Tristan and Isolde”.
Synopsis: During a break at work, she reads to her workers from the book of “Tristan and Isolde” and is amused by how the two had found each other by means of a love potion. Nemorino listens with interest from a distance. He realizes that he is in the same situation and wishes he had such a love potion.
Donizetti opens this passage with a courtly waltz to portray the educated Adina and then changes to a simpler melody in the chorus section of the country folk. In the third part, Adina sings in a brilliant mode. Donizetti portrays a contrast to the simple Nemorino with this portrayal of the eloquent Adina.
We hear this scene with Anna Netrebko from the Vienna State Opera’s ravishing 2005 production (based on Otto Schenk’s timeless staging), who excelled in this role. Perhaps the coloratura soprano’s fach was not her very own, but her performing arts made this production a great event.
Della crudele Isotta – Netrebko
Belcore’s stilted performance
Synopsis: A group of soldiers arrives in the village. The cocky sergeant Belcore is recruiting soldiers for the army and is courting the pretty Adina, who, though flattered, turns him down.
Donizetti has written the accompaniment to this sergeant’s song in simple triplets throughout, which gives Belcore something simple and stiff without making him seem unsympathetic. But his affectation makes him seem artificial compared to Nemorino’s honesty. Adina teases the proud, self-assured sergeant by cheekily repeating the stilted words, and the whole thing ends in a Rossinian comedic crescendo.
Come Paride vezzoso – Nucci / Netrebko
Nemorino despairs of Adina
Synopsis: For the umpteenth time, Nemorino expresses his love to Adina, but she laughs at him. Adina is too proud to pay attention to the handsome but naive young man. For her there is only one thing, you have to change your lover more often. Nemorino is desperate.
In the first part, Adina sings about the impermanence of love. For this, Donizetti has Adina repeat the last word “infedel” wonderfully capriciously several times and embellish it ever more wildly. We then hear a lovely duet with Nemorino in which he artfully repeats Adina’s melody fatuously, showing Adina that Nemorino is not a caliber of lover she seeks.
We hear Kathleen Battle, a light coloratura soprano. She sings a very exquisite, distinguished Adina. In a duet you will hear her with Luciano Pavarotti.
Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera – Pavarotti / Battle
Donizetti gives each character a face
Synopsis: A crowd gathers in the village square. The traveling quack Dulcamara offers his remedies for all kinds of ailments. He confidently extols his healing successes for physical and mental ailments.
In the first picture, Donizetti has given each character a cavatina and given the roles a clear face. First the romantically languishing Nemorino, then the superficially capricious Adina, and third, as the maximum contrast to Nemorino, the macho character of Belcore, exaggerated in the best Buffo style. Dulcamara enters the stage as the fourth main character.
Dulcamara appears with the authority of a herald. He announces himself as a great scientist and after a short time talks himself into the sidelines. Donizetti accompanies the quack’s rhetoric with dotted notes from the violins and flutes throughout, giving the long speech a magic of entertainment and comedy.
We hear Enzo Dara in a successful comedic portrayal of the Quack.
Udite o rustici – Dara
Donizetti’s comedic duet of Dulcamara and Nemorino
Synopsis: Nemorino remembers Adina’s story and asks Dulcamara if he also has a love potion of Queen Isolde. The rustic Dulcamara immediately recognizes the situation and is happy about an easy deal and sells the unsuspecting a bottle of wine as a love potion. However, the effect does not take effect for 24 hours (when Dulcamara has disappeared from the village again).
Donizetti composed the duet of these two simpletons very cleverly. He has the same melodic structure repeated three times without development. While Nemorino sings musically captivated in long cantilenas, Dulcamara mocks the easy victim.
We hear the wonderful duet of Nemorino and Dulcamara in two versions. First, the version from a 1988 Met production with Luciano Pavarotti and Enzo Dara. Dara’s specialty of quickly sung words (“Sillabato”), combined with Pavarotti’s wonderful lyrical passages, creates a great treat for the listener.
Voglio dir…Obbligato – Pavarotti/Dara/Levine
Belcanto – a look back at the singing culture 100 years ago
Those interested can find the recording of the duet from 1908. The recording, accompanied by piano, gives an interesting insight into the singing culture of the 19th century. The tenor Fernando de Lucia (1860-1925) bore the honorary title “Gloria d’Italia”. Born thirty years after the first performance of Elisir, his singing reflects the bel canto tradition of his time. Strikingly, the vocal delivery features more rubato and dolcezza than we are used to today.
We hear de Lucia in the passage “Obbligato, obbligato.” Shaw-Taylor points out the absolute even singing in thirds and “the long rubato with diminuendo on the word “beato” when the voices lie streaming on G and E, the note becoming a thread, shows traditional buffo singing in musical perfection.”
Obbligato – de Lucia / Badini
Nemorino drinks the love potion
Synopsis: Nemorino immediately drinks the bottle and soon he is singing happily to himself. Adina walks by and speaks to him in amazement, saying she has never seen him so cheerful. With the drink, Nemorino’s confidence has grown and he replies to her that tomorrow he will be with his beloved. Adina, thinking that Nemorino means someone else, is badly hit in her vanity.
Now Nemorino also possesses a weapon, he is equipped with the wine and the psychological feud with Adina takes its course. Adina has noticed that something has changed with Nemorino. Encouraged by the wine, Nemorino ventures a melody of his own (“Esulti pur la barbara”), and this time it is Adina who dutifully repeats it. He even challenges her twice with coloratura, which she resolutely answers twice with clear top notes. Now the duet ends with a unison of voices, a sign that Nemorino’s standing with Adina has increased.
See this excerpt in a 2005 recording with a delightfully comedic Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko.
Caro Elisir…Esulti pur la barbara – Villazón / Netrebko
Adina throws herself at Belcore
Synopsis: It is a good thing that Belcore is walking by. Adina promises him the wedding. The date is to be in six days, which amuses Nemorino, since by then he will have won Adina’s love.
Now the comedy continues. Nemorino has already seen himself as the winner and to his chagrin Belcore arrives. Donizetti continues to show himself a shrewd musical psychologist: from the moment Adina promises herself to Belcore, Nemorino and Adina sing a rapturous melody in unison, while Belcore pursues his own musical motives. The music tells a different story than the libretto.
Tran, tran, tran…In Guerra ed in amor – Nucci
The story takes a dramatic turn
Synopsis: Belcore is informed that his regiment will be called up the following day. Adina and Belcore agree to marry immediately. Nemorino is horrified and pleads with Adina to postpone the wedding for another day. Adina triumphs when she sees Nemorino groveling before her in the dust. But no one has an ear for the desperate Nemorino.
After this veritable “colpo di scena,” the forces have shifted. In this emotionally soaked aria, one of the opera’s climaxes, Nemorino asks for a reprieve, ending on an emotional high note. Now Adina is sure he loves her, but wants revenge (“I will take revenge, I will torment him, that he may repent and fall at my feet”). But even in this scene the music speaks a different language, for in the music she has already fallen for Nemorino, she slavishly repeats Nemorino’s languorous melody several times, and finally the scene turns into a concertato.
Watch the scene, again in the comedic Viennese production.
Signor sergente, signor sergente… Adina, credimi
Listen to this aria also by Tito Schipa in a great recording from 1924. No tenor could bring so much expression to his voice. The pleading of Nemorino is heartwarming without becoming larmoyant. Wonderful how he pulls off a wonderful diminuendo at the end of the aria. There is an illuminating anecdote about this ability of Schipa. “Schipa is said to have been recommended a special training method: a burning candle in front of the singing mouth was not to be blown out all at once, but was to go out slowly while singing – if Schipa learned his art of diminuendo in the process, then candles should become an essential part of singing lessons in the future” (Fischer, “Große Stimmen”).
Adina credimi – Tito Schipa
Synopsis: To take revenge on Nemorino, Adina invites the entire village population to the wedding.
Andiamo, Belcore… A lieto convito
The wedding preparations
Synopsis: On the farm, preparations for the wedding are underway. Dulcamara and Adina improvise a little play.
Cantiamo, facciam, brindisi … io son ricco e tu sei bella – Battle / Dara
The second Elisir seems to work …
Synopsis: Nemorino turns to Dulcamara in desperation, who recommends that he buy a second bottle to speed up the effect. But Nemorino has spent all his savings on the first bottle. His rival Belcore, of all people, gives him the idea to enlist, so Belcore can win a recruit and get rid of another competitor. Nemorino strikes, and with the recruitment money he buys a second bottle to win Adina’s heart before the wedding. Meanwhile, a girl has learned that Nemorino’s rich uncle has died and left him a handsome sum. Suddenly the ignorant Nemorino is surrounded by the village girls. Nemorino is now convinced of the effect of the love potion. Dulcamara, himself amazed at the effect, boasts about the miracle cure.
Listen to Luciano Pavarotti from the Bonynge recording of 1970.
Dell elisir mirabile – Sutherland / Pavarotti
The tide is turning
Synopsis: Adina, who knows nothing of his uncle’s death, learns from Dulcamara that Nemorino has sold himself to Belcore for her sake. Moved, Adina buys back the bill of sale. Dulcamara also wants to sell her a bottle. She just smiles and says she wants to win Nemorino with her eyes and smile.
See a ravishing Anna Netrebko from the TV recording of the Vienna State Opera.
Una tenera ochiattina – Netrebko
Donizetti’s famous aria “una furtiva lagrima”
Synopsis: Nemorino thinks he has recognized a tear in Adina’s eye as the girls ensnare him.
Introduced by a bassoon solo and harp (an interesting combination!), this famous aria begins. Besides the beauty of its motives, it captivates the peculiarity that the first part of each stanza is in minor and the second part in major. This transition from pain to hope is wonderfully enhanced by the expressive instrumentation with bassoon and clarinet.
In 1901, Enrico Caruso sang this aria for the first time. It was his debut season at La Scala and Toscanini conducted. What followed was the greatest ovation yet heard in that theater. It went on to become one of the most important operas of his career at the Met. “Una furtiva lagrima” was among the first arias Caruso recorded and (along with “Vesti la giubba”) became his trademark. In this recording, backed by a modern orchestra, the classical rubato can be heard. Listen, for example, to the second “Che più cercando io vo” which, combined with a grandiose accelerando, is twice as long as Pavarotti’s 80 years later. The same can be said of the (wonderfully) long ritardando on “Io la vedo.” In the second part of the aria, Nemorino imagines holding Adina in his arms and feeling her heartbeat. Listen to Enrico Caruso as he tenderly sings this passage and then exults with one the “Cielo”. The final crescendo on “Si può morir” delights with the full swelling of the sound and the glowing final notes.
What is the reason for this discrepancy between Caruso’s and Pavarotti’s interpretations? In the 20th century the hour of the tyrant Toscanini struck, who, under the title of faithfulness to the work, drove out the rubato from the singers and thus led the interpretation into new paths until today.
Una furtiva lagrima (1) – Caruso
Another interpretation by Luciano Pavarotti.
Una furtiva lagrima (2) – Pavarotti
And a third by Placido Domingo.
Una furtiva lagrima (3) – Placido Domingo
Adina’s virtuoso aria
Synopsis: She brings the document to Nemorino and confesses her love to him. Nemorino is in seventh heaven.
It is well evident from this aria that Donizetti did not simply copy Rossini’s overwrought buffo style as a finale, but also composed sentimental or melancholy passages in a buffo opera, such as in “Prendi, per me sei libero”.
We hear this recording first with Joan Sutherland. It is captivating how she masters the coloraturas of this piece.
Per me sei libero – Sutherland
A second recording of Maria Callas
Prendi, prendi, per mi sei libero – Callas
And a third recording by Hilde Güden with Giuseppe di Stefano. It captivates with its simplicity and beautiful lines.
Prendi, prendi, per mi sei libero – Güden
Donizetti gives the last word to Dulcamara
Synopsis: Dulcamara praises his love potion to the entire village before making a run for it. The whole village stocks up on the wonderful essence.
Ei coregge ogni defetto – Odena
DG with Luciano Pavarotti, Kathleen Battle under the direction of James Levine and the Chorus and Orchestra of the New York Metropolitan Opera.
or as a television recording:
ERATO, with Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, Leo Nucci, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo under the direction of Alfred Eschwé and the Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra.
Peter Lutz, Opera-inside, the online opera guide to Elisir d’amore by Gaetano Donizetti