L'elisir d'amore

Gaetano Donizetti

L'elisir d'amore

About this work

The commission for Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore came shortly after the dismal failure of Donizetti's Ugo, Conte di Parigi at Milan's La Scala Theatre. Eager to redeem himself with the Italian public, he delivered the completed work to the Teatro Canobbiano (also a Milanese theatre) in a mere six weeks' time. The premiere, on May 12, 1832, was a brilliant success with both critics and the public, and the first run alone lasted for 33 performances. L'elisir remains an important work in the repertory of major opera houses in the twenty-first century.

The work is a comedy, a melodramma giocosa in two acts, composed to a libretto by Felice Romani. Romani based his book on the libretto for Daniel Francois Auber's Le Philtre, which was penned by Eugène Scribe. The two productions occured less than a year apart and in fact shared some of the same performers. In reworking the story, Romani made some important additions, including Nemorino's aria, "Una furtiva lagrima," which is the most famous excerpt from the opera (aside from its inherent qualities, this aria is notable for having launched Enrico Caruso's rise to fame when he sang it to repeated ovations at La Scala in 1900). From the first discussions of the opera with Romani, through the adaptation of the original text by Scribe, to completion, work on the opera took only three weeks. With this 1832 score Donizetti achieved his first enduring success.

L'elisir is a good-natured story in which the peasant Nemorino attempts to win the heart of his love, Adina, through the injestion of a farcical magic elixir (in fact merely Bordeaux wine). The phony "medicine man," Dr. Dulcamara, and the superlatively stuffy army sergeant, Belcore (who is Nemorino's rival for Adina's love), fill out the roster. An important aspect of the opera is its fine group of characterizations, especially that of Dr. Dulcamara. This slippery salesman contrasts nicely with the tender sincerity of the two lovers. He is given typical buffo music, such as a patter song, which makes him a lively and dynamic force in the unfolding of the story.

The opening music for L'elisir d'amore is multi-sectional, with an Allegro introduction and a Larghetto theme and variations. It is almost like an opening Baroque sinfonia, with no relation to the content of the story to follow. Much has been written about the skill with which both librettist and composer balance the humor and rustic, bumptious nature of the story with tender sentiments and pathos. Nemorino has always been an important role for tenors. While the plot is being set up through the interactions between the other characters, Nemorino intervenes with pleas of love to his beloved Adina. His pathos filled "Adina, credemi" leads right into one of the most important ensembles of the opera, a divergent trio in which Adina and Belcore seem to side against the woeful and lovelorn Nemorino. But it is his loving heart which triumphs in the end over all the obstacles that he himself helps to put in his way.