Premiere: Milan, Teatro alla Canobbiana, 1832
Since its premiere more than a century and a half ago, L’Elisir d’Amore has been among the most consistently popular operatic comedies. The story deftly combines comic archetypes with a degree of genuine character development rare in works of this type. Considering the genre, the story’s ending is as much a foregone conclusion as it would be in a romantic comedy film today. The joy is in the journey, and Donizetti created one of his most instantly appealing scores for this ride. The music of Elisir represents the best of the bel canto tradition that reigned in Italian opera in the early 19th century, from funny patter songs to rich ensembles to wrenching melody like the famous tenor aria “Una furtiva lagrima.”
Bergamo-born Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) wrote more than 60 operas, plus orchestral and chamber music, in a career abbreviated by mental illness and premature death. Many of his works disappeared from public view after his death. Critical and popular opinion of his huge opus has grown considerably over the past 50 years beyond the ever-popular Lucia di Lammermoor and the comic gems L’Elisir d’Amore and Don Pasquale. Felice Romani (1788–1865) was the official librettist of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and worked with many of the most popular Italian composers of the time. He collaborated with Donizetti on several of his best-known operas, including Anna Bolena and Lucrezia Borgia, and provided Vincenzo Bellini with all but two of his librettos. For Elisir, Romani adapted an earlier French libretto by Eugène Scribe (1791–1861), Le Philtre, originally set by the composer Daniel Auber (1782–1871). Scribe was a prolific dramatist whose work was influential in the development of grand opera. He provided librettos for such composers as Rossini, Meyerbeer, and Verdi.
The opera is set in a small village in rural Italy. Some early editions indicate a location in Basque country. The important fact is that it’s a place where everyone knows everyone and where traveling salesmen provide a major form of public entertainment. The Met production sets the action in 1836, when the Risorgimento, the movement for Italian independence, was beginning to gather momentum.
What separates L’Elisir d’Amore from dozens of charming comedies composed around the same time is not only the superiority of its hit numbers, but the overall consistency of its music. The bass’s entrance aria, the comic patter song “Udite, udite, o rustici,” is funny, difficult, and establishes the doctor as slimy but ultimately harmless and rather likeable. This persona is explored further in his Act II duet with Adina, where he parodies a rich old Venetian man becoming foolish over a pretty young girl. The framework of this duet is a barcarole, a sailing song typical for Venice and usually set in 6/8 time. Changing the meter to 2/2 time accentuates the rickety old man’s clumsiness in his attempts at gallantry. This sort of sly humor is a hallmark of the score, which maintains a prominent and insightful connection between the music and the unfolding romance. The tenor’s Act I solo “Adina, credimi” gives us a mere glimpse of the man he will become later in the opera. When this finally begins to happen in Act II’s showstopping aria “Una furtiva lagrima,” it is much more than an excuse for a gorgeous melody: the aria’s variations between major and minor keys in the climaxes are one of opera’s savviest depictions of dawning consciousness, as the hero simultaneously accepts the possibility of love and his own power of self-assertion.
L’Elisir d’Amore at the Met
The 1904 Met premiere of L’Elisir d’Amore starred Marcella Sembrich and Enrico Caruso, whose interpretation of the role of Nemorino became legendary. He sang it 32 times at the Met. Beniamino Gigli appeared as Nemorino in 11 performances from 1930 to 1932, and Ferruccio Tagliavini starred in 15 performances from 1948 to 1962. A popular new production by Nathaniel Merrill, designed by Robert O’Hearn, premiered in 1960 with Fausto Cleva conducting Elisabeth Söderström and Dino Formichini. Other tenors who have appeared in the opera include Nicolai Gedda (11 performances from 1961 to 1968), Alfredo Kraus (7 performances, 1968 and 1991), Roberto Alagna (9 performances, 1996– 99), and especially Luciano Pavarotti, who sang Nemorino 49 times between 1973 and 1998. Sarah Caldwell conducted five performances of L’Elisir in 1978, with Judith Blegen as Adina and Pavarotti and José Carreras sharing the role of Nemorino. Pavarotti also starred in the 1991 premiere of a new production directed by John Copley, opposite Kathleen Battle, who appeared as Adina 30 times between 1988 and 1993. Other sopranos who have starred in the opera include Bidú Sayão (18 performances, 1941–50), Roberta Peters (16 performances, 1961–73), Renata Scotto (8 performances, 1965–72), and Ruth Ann Swenson (26 performances, 1988–2006). Among the many star basses who have sung the role of Dulcamara are Ezio Pinza (14 appearances, 1930–33), Fernando Corena (53 performances, 1960–78), and Paul Plishka (47 performances, 1989– 99). Bartlett Sher’s new production opened the Met’s 2012–13 season, with Anna Netrebko, Matthew Polenzani, Mariusz Kwiecien, and Ambrogio Maestri in the leading roles.