L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love)

Opera: L’Elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love)
Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Other popular works by this composer: Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale
First performed: 1832
Language: Italian
Accessibility Level: Beginner Explorer Aficionado
Setting: Late 18th-century Spain/France
Plot: A lovesick peasant buys a love potion from a snake oil salesman to win over his beloved, unaware that it is simply wine
Highlights: Quanto è bella, Una furtiva lagrima
Recommended audio recording/s: Banks/Plazas/Holland/Shore/Parry [in English]; Pavarotti/Sutherland; Carreras/Riccarelli
Recommended video recording/sVillazon/Netrebko

Rating (1 to 5):  CaptureCaptureCaptureCaptureCapture

Donizetti’s operas, of which he wrote over seventy, do not generally rank in my list of  favorites. In all honesty, however, I’ve only casually listened to a few of the more famous ones, so I still keep an open mind. There are lots more to explore (and we’ll cover many of those in the weeks – and years – ahead). Furthermore, at times you’ll like operas right away, on first listening, and other times they grow on you with repeated listening and as your sophistication level increases. They can be like fine wine. And, speaking of wine, it has a prominent role in this story.

I liked the opera immediately. In fact, I loved it. It has a lot of infectious, lively tunes, one ultra-famous, heartbreaking one and lots of choral interjection, which I always love. It is an opera buffa, or comic opera (think “buffoon”), and as such is a lot of fun to listen to. What’s more, the story is both touching and relatable, unlike many operas that have bizarre or overly melodramatic plots. Donizetti wrote this opera in only six weeks, and wisely added its most famous number after the original drafts were complete. It is one of the twenty most performed operas in the world.

The music in this opera reminded me very much of that of Rossini – not surprising, considering it is from the same time period and has a madcap plot not unlike Rossini’s Barber of Seville. In fact, only a few years prior to this opera being premiered, Rossini had just finished writing his last one (William Tell). Here, Donizetti picks up his mantle, with enormous success (and with more than a few similarities to his forebear’s work).

I highly recommend listening to this opera sung in English first. This is always good advice as it helps with understanding the plot, but especially so when the story is so much fun to follow (with some operas, you’re better off not knowing the convoluted and ridiculous plot!) It also happens that the recording of this opera in English, pictured above, is of excellent quality (for an original-language (Italian) recording there are several good choices, including those sung by Pavarotti and Carreras). Andrew Shore, who sings the role of Dr. Dulcamara (the love potion hawker) in the English-language version, is wonderfully demonstrative and emphatic (check him out in the English-language Barber Of Seville and Don Pasquale as well).

Now, on to the Three’s Company-worthy plot:

Nemorino, a poor peasant, is in love with Adina, whom he perceives to be out of his league – she’s educated and wealthy, both of which he is not. Adina is indifferent to his affection, and is also being pursued by the soldier Belcore. She’s not really interested in him, either, and prefers to play the field. She’s a free spirit, she is.

The opera opens with a jaunty tune sung by the peasants, extolling their simple village life. Nemorino then spies Adina, and sings of his love for her in the tenor standard Quanto e bella (“she’s so beautiful”):

Enter Belcore, the soldier, who also woos Adina with his own (less famous) aria, after which the whole cast sings a highly energetic number that slowly builds to a frenetic pace. This, more than anything, reminded me of Rossini, employing a technique he used to build excitement in a song by gradually increasing its tempo and volume.

“Doctor” Dulcamara makes his grand entrance next, rolling his cart of potions and magical cures behind him (again, I am reminded of Fiagro’s similar entrance in The Barber of Seville, cart and all). Dulcamara brags of his ability to cure any and all ills with his mysterious concoctions. This, of course, gives the lovesick Nemorino an idea. He pays all the money he has for a “love” potion, which is really nothing but alcohol. The “doctor” tells him it takes twenty-four hours to take effect, which, in reality, allows him to leave town before Nemorino discovers he’s been swindled. Nemorino takes a couple of swigs and starts to feel giddy. Adina walks by but he ignores her, afraid to interact with her before he gets the full effect of the potion. She takes this as a snub, and seems a bit . . . disappointed. She may have feelings for Nemorino that she does not admit to.

Belcore returns asking Adina to marry him (things happen quickly in opera plots!). She agrees to do so in six days time, just to spite the suddenly indifferent Nemorino, having no intention of following through. Nemorino overhears the proposal but is unconcerned, confident that his potion will make Adina his in just one day, not six. However, when Belcore is given military orders to leave the next day, Adina agrees to marry him right away, and Nemorino is now very concerned. He sings a plaintive aria (Adina Credimi) pleading with Adina to wait just one more day. Adina and the villagers join in for a rousing finish. Here it is sung by Luciano Pavarotti:

Adina is unmoved and determined to continue with her plans, however, and Act 2 opens with a jaunty wedding feast:

When Adina sees that Nemorino is not present, she delays the nuptials until evening (she’s apparently got it for him bad, as much as she desperately tries to make him jealous!) Nemorino is beside himself, and begs the doctor for more potion, but he has no money. He therefore agrees to enlist as a soldier to earn an immediate signing bonus. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, Nemorino’s uncle has died and left him a fortune (I told you this was like a Three’s Company plot!) Also, Adina discovers that Nemorino bought the potion from the doctor to win her love and she now feels remorse for treating him badly.

Nemorino walks on stage alone to sing this opera’s greatest number, and, indeed, one of opera’s greatest tenor arias. Surely it is the greatest one that Donizetti penned: Una furtiva lagrima (one secret tear – a reference to Nemorino’s realization that Adina loves him after all when he witnesses her shed a tear for him). While I’ve always loved Pavarotti’s treatment of this aria, I was blown away when I heard Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon sing it on his DVD performance from 2006, which I very highly recommend. It is funny, playful, and extremely well sung and acted. Villazon is incredibly versatile – he is like Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean character with his comical contortions and facial gestures, and he even juggles on stage while singing. The audience gives him a thunderous and warm ovation (twice!) after his famous aria, and demands an encore. It’s a joy to watch, and we have to wonder if he is in or out of character while he bashfully absorbs the audience’s earnest admiration:

Adina gets Nemorino out of his military contract and begs him to stay. She finally and passionately admits her love for him and vows to love him forever. Dulcamara declares his love potion a smashing success (not only does it make you fall in love, but rich, too!), and Sergeant Belcore takes his loss in stride, declaring there are plenty of other women to marry. The transformation in the two main characters in the Villazon/Netrebko video performance is incredibly heartwarming and gets a long, enthusiastic ovation in the final scene. It is wonderful to see such chemistry and authenticity between two principals, and it’s an opera that has a rare happy ending. L’elisir d’amore – an elixir to make you fall in love – with opera!

(I apologize for the foreign subtitles – copyright laws prohibit the American/English version from being posted online).
 I found it curious that during the bows, two male performers were thrown flowers (those playing Belcore and Dulcamara), but not the female (Netrebko) or male lead (Villazon)!

The Villazon/Netrebko DVD

The Pavarotti CD

The Carreras CD

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Opera: Werther
Composer: Jules Massenet
Other popular works by this composer: Manon, Le Cid, Thais
First performed: 1892
Language: French
Accessibility level: Beginner Adventurer Explorer Expert
Setting: Late 18th-century Germany
Plot: A melancholy and suicidal young poet pines over another man’s woman, with tragic results
Highlights: O Nature, pleine de grâce; Pourquoi me réveiller
Recommended audio recording/s: Bocelli/Gertseva
Rating (1 to 5):  CaptureCaptureCaptureCapture

Werther, a poet and the protagonist of this opera, is a man after my own heart: brooding, introspective, focused on what (and whom) he can’t have. He’s serious and full of gloom. The opera is based on Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, but a good substitute title would be “Fatal Attraction.”

The opera starts with a prelude that begins, appropriately, on a dramatic and tragic note, but then veers off into innocence and tenderness. The first scene opens on children practicing a pleasant Christmas song, which will come back in a haunting way later in the story.  Reference is made to Charlotte, the object of Werther’s longing, and Albert, her betrothed. Werther enters in a rather contemplative mood, extolling the beauty of nature in poetic observations via a lovely aria, O Nature, pleine de grâce (O nature, full of grace). He has come to escort Charlotte to a ball since her fiance is away. This could perhaps be the reason for his magnanimous mood . . .

Werther expresses his love for Charlotte. She gently rebuffs him, especially after being informed that her soon-to-be husband Albert has made a surprise return home. Werther laments that his life would be wonderful if only Charlotte were his. She then rhapsodizes about her deceased mother, who made her promise to marry Albert, while Werther inappropriately steers the conversation back to her lovely eyes and mouth. In an act of pity and affection (and forbidden love?), Charlotte agrees to meet up with Werther, platonically, at Christmas, inadvertently keeping his desperate hope alive. In spite of this, he philosophizes casually on death by suicide should he continue to suffer disappointment (operas frequently feature characters with exaggerated and extreme emotions, and this one is no exception).

Albert figures out that Werther is in love with his (now) wife, and Charlotte begins to have stronger feelings for Werther in light of the letters he’s written her. Werther indeed visits her at Christmas, and they reminisce. We then come to this opera’s pièce de résistance and Massenet’s greatest aria – Pourquoi me reveiller (why do you awaken me?), an ultra-dramatic tenor showpiece wherein Werther is reciting a poem by Ossian that he is fond of. It is brooding and pessimistic, like our protagonist, with soaring angst and bitter resignation. The singer asks why spring teases him with warmth and joy, when it will only be followed by eventual sorrow. There are many wonderful renditions of this aria by the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Pavarotti and countless others, but the version below, by my third-favorite tenor, Juan Diego Florez, is especially heartfelt and moving. If this doesn’t stir you, check your pulse.

Werther expresses his love for Charlotte strongly, and while she seems to weaken, she ultimately rejects it. He leaves, and Albert soon appears, suspicious. A servant arrives with a note from Werther, asking to borrow Albert’s pistols since he is going away. Albert gladly obliges, and Charlotte is horrified. In the final act, she hurries to him and finds he has shot himself. She finally declares that she loves him, and did all along. In the background, the children sing their Christmas hymn as Werther dies in Charlotte’s arms, fulfilling the sorrow he foretold in his famous aria.

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Opera of the Week


Each week (approximately!) I listen to an opera in its entirety and post a review below. Actually, I listen to it twice during my daily commutes to and from work, often an English version first (to help me follow the plot), then an original language version that I carefully select from those available. I also read up on the work from various print sources that I have, and sometimes also watch a video performance. Basically, I immerse myself in the opera for a week. This is as much for my benefit as my readers’. It makes me very familiar with the work, which helps me appreciate it more on future listenings. I also often discover works that I love, or come to like others of which I previously had a negative impression.

Usually these are operas that I’m listening to in their entirety for the first time (I have over 700 to choose from!), after which I offer my initial thoughts and impressions. Operas, like other forms of music, can grow on the listener over time, so I usually keep an open mind even if I don’t care for an opera right away. While I indicate the particular recording(s) I listened to, the review is mostly focused on the work itself and not necessarily the selected performance. Occasionally I will also review the operas I am more familiar with, some of which are briefly encapsulated on the starter operas page. If I’m going to cover fifty operas a year this will take fourteen years, so I’d better get started . . .

My rating scale: CaptureCaptureCaptureCaptureCapture

5 tenors – I loved it. I will listen to the whole work often, and seek other recordings of it.
4 tenors – I liked it.  I will keep it in my rotation, and learn more about it.
3 tenors – Neutral. I might re-listen to certain parts, but probably not the whole work.
2 tenors – I didn’t like it. It mostly bored me, and had few redeeming qualities.
1 tenor –  I don’t know what anyone sees in this, but to each his or her own.


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