Everything you need to know about Donizetti’s sentimental comedy, The Elixir of Love.
Who was the composer?
Gaetano Donizetti was a man of opposites: known in equal measure for his delightful opera buffa comic pieces and opera seria works like the blood-soaked tragic tale of Lucia di Lammermoor.
He was a prolific composer in many genres: penning 75 operas, 16 symphonies, 193 songs, 19 string quartets and a plethora of duets, oratorios, cantatas and other classical works.
Born into a poor family in Italy’s Bergamo, he showed some musical promise as a boy and received a scholarship to the Lezioni Caritatevoli school, where he impressed his superiors enough to be offered a composing contract in Naples.
He achieved international success for his tragic opera Anna Bolena, and followed up with the now-famous comedy L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love).
Donizetti showed symptoms of syphilis in his 40s and was institutionalised for madness in 1845. He died in 1848.
What happens in the story?
Nemorino is in love with Adina, but she’s rich and he’s poor, and Adina won’t give him the time of day. After hearing the legend of Tristan and Isolde, Nemorino wonders if a love potion might do the trick.
Cue the arrival in town of Dulcamara, travelling larrikin and purveyor of a bottled cure-all that might just do the trick.
But time is running out – Adina has agreed to marry the pompous Sergeant Belcore. Will the potion work? Will Dulcamara get out of town before anyone discovers it doesn’t? Will Nemorino get his girl?
Not afraid of spoilers? Click here to read the synopsis.
Who are the main characters?
Nemorino – the poor, lovestruck labourer
Adina – The squatter’s daughter, rich and beautiful
Belcore – the dashing English officer
Dulcamara – Travelling quack, quick to make a buck off his cure-all elixir and even quicker to leave town afterwards
Giannetta – town gossip
What’s the big hit?
‘Una furtiva lagrima’ (A furtive tear) is a moving tenor aria, often performed independently of the opera itself. It was a favourite of Luciano Pavarotti.
Something to listen out for
Written in the ‘bel canto’ style, this opera is all about showing off the beauty of the human voice. So every character has a beautiful tune to sing, and the orchestra’s job is always to support the singer, rather than obscure the singer’s melody or compete with it. Often, the orchestral accompaniment is quite simple.
When Nemorino sings his first aria lamenting Adina’s disinterest, his melodies rise only to fall at the end of the line, like a human sighing.
This production is … ?
Director Simon Phillips likes to bring comedies as close to the present day as the story allows. So he set this charming production in an Australian town, circa 1915. With talk of conscription and regiments, a modern adaptation would have jarred, but the rural themes of Donizetti’s opera fit beautifully in the Australian outback.
Gabriela Tylesova designed painterly period costumes and Michael Scott-Mitchell created a fabulous corrugated iron diorama, drawing on the earthy colours and iconography of rural Australia.
A little history
With the poor reception of Ugo, conte di Parigi fresh in his mind and a new commission in his pocket, Donizetti wasted no time getting to work on a new opera. Librettist Romani borrowed heavily from an existing libretto about a love potion, and Donizetti wrote the score in a very short time frame – between two and six weeks, depending who you ask.
After just four rehearsals, The Elixir of Love premiered in Milan in 1832, and was an instant success. This was perhaps due more to the charm of the opera than to the cast – on opening night, Donizetti allegedly said “it bodes well that we have a German prima donna, a tenor who stammers, a buffo who has a voice like a goat, and a French basso who isn’t up to doing much.” In the next 10 years, the sentimental comedy became the most popular opera in Italy.
A few trivia tidbits in case you get stuck for a topic in the queue to the bathroom.
- The name ‘Dulcamara’ is a combination of the Latin words for ‘sweet’ (dulce) and ‘sour’ (amara).
- The name ‘Nemorino’ means ‘the little nobody’ and comes from the latin word for nobody (nemo).
- The librettist Felice Romani believed his text was so good that it did not need music, and could stand alone as spoken theatre.
- In the opera, Adina buys Nemorino’s military service contract so he doesn’t have to go to war. This actually happened to Donizetti – a rich woman bought his service so he did not have to serve in the Austrian army.
- Donizetti worked at a frenzied pace, and when composing wrote only the dots of notes on the staff. He’d come back and put in the stems and flags later.
Watch the six minute cartoon version: