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L'elisir d'amore in a nutshell

All you need to know about Donizetti’s comic opera L’elisir d’amore in one place — right here!

What is the story?

L’elisir d’amore is an opera buffa (comic opera), best understood in our terms as a classic ‘rom com’ — both funny and touching, it will leave you undeniably uplifted!

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 quack 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?

If you’re not afraid of spoilers, you can watch this fun six minute L’elisir d’amore cartoon animation, put together by famous tenor (and talented cartoonist!) Rolando Villazon.

Who are the main characters?

Nemorino — a good-hearted but penniless waiter
Adina — a wealthy and beautiful bar owner
Belcore — experienced charmer and Nemorino’s rival
Dulcamara — a travelling ‘quack’ (medicine man), who touts a dubious cure-all elixir
Giannetta — Adina’s friend and town gossip

Meet some of the characters in the video below…

Will I recognise the music?

It is very likely that you will! Listen out for Nemorino’s aria ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ (‘A furtive tear’) in Act II — one of the most famous and best loved arias in the whole operatic repertoire! It was a particular favourite of the legendary Luciano Pavarotti.

What is this production like?

Daniel Slater’s 2016 production, originally conceived back in 2001, is set in 1950s Italy. In this updated and colourful setting, the character of Adina is a wealthy bar/hotel owner, Nemorino a lovesick waiter, and the charmer Belcore a policeman who makes his entrance on the most iconic of Italian status symbols – a Vespa! The stage is often very busy with the full chorus taking part in many scenes, each playing their own distinctive village character, which makes for a great theatrical experience!

The production has been described by The Guardian as:

“a Fellini-esque vision of scooters, cappuccino machines and champagne fountains, set on a sun-washed hotel terrace overlooking the sea… like re-visiting a perfect holiday spot!”

Who was the composer?

This opera is by Gaetano Donizetti, who was born in Italy in 1797. He 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.

L'elisir d'amore at Opera North, 2016. Photo credit: Robert Workman

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!

What style is it in?

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.

Jung Soo Yun as Nemorino, with the Chorus of Opera North © Robert Workman

A little trivia…

  • L’elisir d’amore was written in a radically short time frame, scribbled down in a mere 6 weeks!
  • The name Nemorino comes from the Latin word ‘Nemo’ (nobody) and therefore literally means ‘little nobody’!
  • The story of the opera reflects Donizetti’s own life – like Nemorino, the composer’s military service was bought by a rich woman, so that he did not have to serve in the army.
  • Playwright W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan) wrote a parody of the opera called Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack in 1866  
  • The name ‘Dulcamara’ combines the Latin words for sweet ‘dulce’ and sour ‘amara’.

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