L’elisir d’amore – The elixir of love.

L'Elisir d'amore - The elixir of love

Two operas. One in Italian and one in French.

In 1831, on June 15th, in Paris, there was an important premiere of a brand new opera by the renowned composer Daniel François Esprit Auber. The name of the opera was The potion – Le Philtre. In Paris, everybody was looking forward to the newest of their favorite musician’s works, and just as predicted it was a huge success. 

the elixir of love
Daniel Auber

The story is about a young boy who overcomes his shyness with a magical love potion supplied by an itinerant merchant of dubious ethics. The truth of the matter is that the magical poison is nothing more than ordinary red wine. But as the boy is convinced the potion is working, it works just fine. The well-known placebo effect. This baseline gives lots of space for comical situations and interesting music. 

The French libretto was by Eugène Scribe. He in turn was inspired by a short story by the Italian novelist Silvio Malaperta, who in turn had used the French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Le Devin du Village, as a base… And on we go. The story wasn’t new when Donizetti got it. It had traveled back and forth over the Alps between Italy and France for a long time.

There has always been a kind of love-hate relationship between the two countries. So, when the famous businessman, Alessandro Lanari commissioned an opera by Donizetti, he and Romani didn’t think twice before stealing the idea from Auber. And that led to many columnists from both sides comparing the two works. In particular mode, Donizetti’s opera was scrutinized by the French… And the conclusion obviously wasn’t positive for L’Elisir d’amore

 – I piece of plagiarism… Nothing else! 

Today we must give them at least partly right. The libretto by Felice Romani is actually more or less a translation of the French opera. The few differences are caused more by moving the pieces around, and not by actually writing new content. Donizetti’s music is all original though. And while Auber’s opera today is forgotten, Donizetti’s comedy is today one of the most performed operas worldwide. 

The composer of L'elisir d'amore
Gaetano Donizetti

Premiere – May 12, 1832, Teatro alla Canobbiana, Milan, Italy.

Composer –  Gaetano Donizetti

Librettist – Felice Romani

Running Time – Roughly 2 hours.

Two Acts

Ouverture 3 minutes.

Act 1 – Approximately 1 hour 10 minutes, or less.

Act 2 – Approximately 50 minutes, or more.

In Italian

Main characters

AdinaColoratura soprano. Rich, young, and capricious landowner. 

Nemorino –  Light Tenor. Simple farmer’s boy. Very much in love with Adina.

Belcore – Baritone. Sergeant of the Village garrison.

Dr. Dulcamare – Comic Bass. An itinerant medical quack.

Giannetta – Soprano. Village girl and friend of Adina’s

The opera is actually based on another opera… Le Philtre by the French composer Daniel-François-Esprit Auber. Le Philtre premiered less than one year before l’Elisir d’amore.  

Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.

Background – The opera L’elisir d’amore is set in …

A small Basque village.

Late 1700. 

Would you like to visit Basque Country?


Would you like to see the sites where the Opera takes place? 




Act 1, first part – A farmhouse in the countryside.

The workers are resting in the shadows. A stream floats by and a few women are doing laundry. Adina is reading. After a short chorus, Nemorino explains his feelings for Adina. He loves her but is too poor and much too shy to be able to do anything about it…

 – Quanto è bella, quanto è cara! (How beautiful… Who will teach me to make love?)

The first ever Adina
The first ever Adina, Sabine Heinefetter.

Then Adina sings a short aria about the book she’s reading. That book is none less that Tristan and Iseult with the famous love potion…

 – Della crudele Isotta… (The cruel Isolde… Tristan took a sip, and soon Isolde had softened his heart…)

Now enters the village officer, Belcore. He is also after the beautiful Adina, and he sings an aria very different than that of Nemorino. He is extremely confident and sure of himself. His courtship is more in the form of an offering. He sings…

 – Come Paride vezzoso… (… I am gallant, I’m a Sergeant… Surrender to Mars, the warrior god.) (Yep, he’s confident.)

Anyway, Adina and Nemorino have a short scene where Adine explains the nature of love (In particularly her own love…)

 – Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera… ((Ask the flattering aura why it flies without rest between the lily and the rose… It is in her nature to be mobile and unfaithful.)

And we learn something more about the situation. 

  1. Adina is really quite fed up with Nemorino’s sighing and longing. If he can’t get his act together he better seek love elsewhere.
  2. Nemorino has an uncle in town who’s sick. There’s something about an inheritance…

Act 1, second part – The town square.

In the middle of the square, a traveling vendor has arrived in town. Accompanied by trumpets, and fireworks, the famous doctor Dulcamara presents his fabulous mixture, magical position, and problem-solving brew. In fact, it’s good for almost anything, just as he vigorously explains.

 – Udite, udite, o rustici…

And so all four main characters are introduced, and the history can unfold.

Nemorino is obviously very enthusiastic about the various supplies that Dulcamare can offer. He asks him about the love potion… as the one Isolde used. And of course, he has one. And it’s for sale…

 – How much is it? asks Nemorino.

 – Well… says Dulcamara.

 – More than one gold coin?

 – In fact, that’s the exact amount.

 – And how should I take it?

 – Shake it, then bring it to your lips, but be mindful not to let the magical vapor evade. Sip and soon you feel the revigorating effect…

 – Effect? Immediately?

 – Well, to tell you the truth, you have to wait for 24 hours… (That would give me enough time to be out of here…)

l'elisir d'amore by gaetano donizettiDulcamara leaves, and Nemorino with a trembling heart tastes some of the love potion. It tastes very good… Just like red wine. So, he tries some more. After a short while of enthusiastically lowering the level in the bottle, he is quite tipsy. Adina enters. But as he’s 1. a little drunk, and 2. convinced that tomorrow the brew will have its effect, he demonstrates a different behavior towards the young woman. No sighing and no suffering. Instead, he’s confident, defiant almost. And thus for the first time ever, he is able to truly awaken her interest. 

There is a beautiful scene with the two almost-lovers where they both demonstrate their distancing. Nemorino is acting his, but on Adina’s part, she is genuinely confused… Confused, and worried. 

 – Esulti pur la Barbara. (Rejoice cruel one, tomorrow my pain will end.)

Belcore enters. He is still convinced that he could marry Adina. So, now they are all three in the arena. Belcore asks Adina when she will give her hand to him in marriage. Still confused, she looks at Nemorino with a challenging expression…

 – In six days. 

No big deal. The potion will have effect within 24 hours so he will have plenty of time. Then a message arrives to Belcore and the soldiers are called away for the next day. Even better, the official will be gone. But when the sergeant turns to Adina and asks:

 – Couldn’t you marry me already today?

Still defiantly watching Nemorino, Adina answers:

 – Ebben; quest’oggi… (as you wish, today it is.)

… And suddenly the outcome is anything but reassuring. Nemorino desperately throws himself at Adina’s feet and sings:

 – Adina, credimi, te ne scongiuro… (Adina, listen. You can’t marry him. Please wait just one day…)

And Belcore joins in, insulting, offending, and provoking him. This trio is a little jewel. Nemorino is sobbing, Adina is trying to comfort him, and Belcore is bullying. All this to the same music. Nemorino realizes that his only hope is to find Dulcamara and find him immediately.

The act finishes with an uptempo ensemble with everybody on stage. Belcore is happy, Adina is worried, and Nemorino is desperate.

 – Fra lieti concenti ~ gioconda brigata… 

the elixir of love
Dulcamara has just arrived in town...

Act 2, first part – Inside Adina’s house.

Everything is ready for the marriage. There is a small orchestra on stage and the villagers are all singing, dancing, and most of all eating and drinking. Dulcamara and Adina sings a comical little couplet.

 – Io son ricco, e tu sei bella…

(This is actually a pastiche of a Venetian song about a young female gondoliere who, when it comes down to it, prefers a young but poor man instead of a wealthy but older senator.)

Adina is digging herself into a situation she wasn’t prepared for. Nemorino hasn’t shown up, and since all this was a way to avenge his disinterest, him not being there made it all useless. Furthermore, now she’s on her way to actually marrying the sergeant, something she never wanted. 

The notary enters and the couple and everybody with them move on toward the town to sign the act. Dulcamara obviously rests behind to take advantage of the leftovers. Nemorino enters, and if he was desperate before, he’s more so now. His heart is double-broken. 

The greates tenor of alla times
Luciano Pavarotti often claimed that his all-time favorite role was, in fact, Nemorino.

 – Oh Doctor, I’m desperate… I need her love, but not tomorrow, now, on the spot!

Dulcamara considers his options…

 – Just take another dose, and the effect will be immediate. (I will be gone in half an hour…)

Nemorino shines up:

 – Well then… I’ll have another bottle.

But he can’t pay for it. So, Dulcamara gives him 15 minutes to get the money. He’ll be waiting at the Tavern.

Dulcamara exits and Belcore enters. And here’s a nice duet between the two rivals. The background is as follows:

  1. Adina, trying to escape the ties she herself has tied, has postponed the wedding until evening.
  2. Nemorino is in desperate need of money.
  3. Belcore is recruiting. 

 – Ai perigli della guerra… (At the perils of war… But I also know, there’s no other road left for me…)

So Nemorino enlists in the army and gets 20 scudi in cash. 

Act 2, second part – A simple courtyard.

The cards are changed once again. Somehow, all the girls in the village have come to know about the death of Nemorino’s uncle. Not only that, but also that he’s left all his wealth to the boy. Nemorino is wealthy beyond reason. The young man is unaware of what’s happened as he’s been occupied with drinking the magical wine. So when he strolls by, inebriated from the brew, all the girls are suddenly very attracted by him. Nemorino attributes it to the effect of the potion. 

Adina and Dulcamara, they too unaware of the inheritance, watch them. And Dulcamara explains to Adina the reason for his transformation, telling her that Nemorino is in love with some girl… A very cruel and indifferent girl:

 – I distill pleasure and love like rose water… The elixir of love of Queen Isolt.

And finally, Adina begins to grasp the totality of what has happened. When Dulcamara tells her that Nemorino has enlisted as a soldier just to get the money to buy the love potion, she knows what to do. They sing a beautiful and very typical Donizettianic duet:

 – Una tenera occhiatina… (A tender glance… The recipe is my face, and the elixir are my eyes…)

And we have come to the highlights of the evening. The first is the most famous aria and it’s sung by Nemorino. The position of this masterpiece right here is strange… More about that here. Anyway, here it is:

 – Una furtiva lagrima…

Although the melody is kind of sad, Nemorino’s true feelings are those of joy. He has seen a glittering in Adina’s eye… A tear. And that means she loves him. 

Adina enters and now it is her time to play Nemorino. She tells him that she bought the contract from Belcore. With an abundance of compliments, she sets him free. She sings a beautifully sweet and soft aria…

 – Prendi; per me sei libero… Goodbye. (Here, you’re free now… But stay where everyone loves you, wise, loving, and honest…)

This is a fine concert piece that can have a good impact if the soprano is good. Now it’s Nemorino’s time to be confused…

 – Don’t you have anything else to tell me?

 – Nope.

 – Ok then, I want to die as a soldier…

But of course, that’s not what happens. When they are finished and finally declare what we knew from the beginning, Adina has another aria that can result in ovations if it’s done well:

 – Il mio rigor dimentica…

I have been to performances where all these three last arias were sung twice. The audience was crazy and just wouldn’t let them continue without an encore. 

Belcore enters, sees the two lovers, but takes the rejection with a light heart. The opera finishes with everybody saluting and cheering for Dulcamara – The true savior of love.

What to look out for.

First act.

0 minutesBel conforto al mietitore. The chorus introduction

1 minute – Quanto è bella, quanto è care! Nemorino’s first aria.

6 minutes – Della crudele Isotta. Adina’s first aria.

11 minutes – Come Paride vezzoso. Belcore’s aria.

20 minutes – Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera/Per guarir da tal pazzia, Duetto, Nemorino and Adina.

26 minutes – Che vuol dire codesta sonata?/Udite, udite, o rustici. Dulcamara has arrived…

36 minutes – Nemorino buys the love potion.

46 minutes – La rà, la rà, la lera!/Esulti pur la barbara. Duet between Adina and an inebriated Nemorino.

56 minutes – Adina, credimi, te ne scongiuro… Trio Nemorino, Adina, and Belcore.

Second act.

3 minutes – Io son ricco, e tu sei bella. Dulcamara’s and Adina’s Venetian Gondoliere-duet.

12 minutes – Ai perigli della guerra… The duet between Nemorino and Belcore, where the young man enlists as a soldier to get his 20 coins.

24 minutes – Dulcamara tells Adina about the love potion.

32 minutes – Una furtiva lagrima. Nemorinos second aria.

39 minutes – Prendi; per me sei libero. Adina’s second aria.

44 minutes – Il mio rigor dimentica. Adina’s third aria (stretta).

And what type of voices do you need?

Generally, today, The elixir of love is sung by light voices. Especially Nemorino is usually a very light tenor. But it doesn’t have to be. The role is easily sung by a normal lyric tenor. That would give him more character of a grown man, rather than a boy. 

Adina, in my opinion, should also be a reasonably full voice. The last aria, Il mio rigor dimentica, in that case might have to be a little slower, but it’s still more credible to have a woman as commander of the farm than a young girl.

Belcore is often casted as a minor role with maybe the least familiar artist of the four main characters. That, in my opinion, is unfortunate. Belcore should be a plausible alternative to Nemorino, not a clown. He should be convincing and have a good baritone.

This production from Florens Italy has Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi, and Giuseppe Taddei. All lyrical voices, and brilliant ones as well.

What is Bel Canto?

Bel canto is Italian and means good singing or beautiful singing. The usage of the word is not well defined. On one hand, it means a time span, from the late 16th century til the mid-19th century. On the other hand, it could mean just good singing as in good technique. Mostly it is a term for a specific type of music, closely connected to the opera tradition of the 1600 and 1700.

It is characterized by clear, soft, and homogeneous sounds, elegant rhythm, formal exquisiteness, and wide use of the flute and falsetto voice to make even the highest notes sweet and pleasant. The passages and scales should be soft, and the vocalizations and portamentos should unfold luminous and velvety.

A lot of words to say that the focus should be on softness, agility, and fidelity to pronunciation. Later techniques focused on volume, vocal grandeur, and equalization. Today, only historians and scientists know how they really sounded back then. When we listen to singers today (… and I include all of those who made recordings at the beginning of the 1900s), none of them sounds like they sounded in the 18th century. 

Although Donizetti, together with Bellini, and Rossini, is regarded as one of the great Bel canto composers, one should maybe interpret that as Bel canto meaning just good singing rather than the 1600 and 1700 vocal style. Because there is nothing in this opera that requires any special Bel canto features. There is no use of falsetto or flauto in the male vocal score. The heights are strong and full just like in later repertoire.  The vocal lines, the accompaniment, the chorus, it’s all very modern, and that is why Donizetti’s arias are very tasteful to modern singers. I don’t think there’s a tenor in the world who hasn’t tried out Una furtiva lagrima at one time or the other.

As for Bel canto as in good singing… Well, that should always be the main focus.

Una furtiva lagrima…

Donizetti wrote the whole opera in just six weeks. The work progressed impeccably with both Gaetano and Felice in perfect symbiosis. Wonderful… Until they reached the seventh scene in the second act.

 – I want an arioso here for Nemorino… And I know just the perfect piece…

Romani at first refused, saying:

  – Believe me, a romanza in that place would just cool the situation! What does a rude simpleton have to do with pathetic whimper? Why have him sobbing when everything should be festivity and happiness?

But Donizetti was boneheadedly stubborn. He already had the music, he just needed the words. And he got them.

But at the theater, he later realized that Romani was right. The audience was much less enthusiastic over the second act, and at least some of that could be blamed on the interrupted flow. The action loses motion. Especially the music and action that lead up to the aria. It just stops and Nemorino comes on and sings. 

It is interesting how nowadays, people can sit through the whole first act and half of the second just longing to hear the first notes of the bassoon sounding the intro to that single aria… 

Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.