Wednesday, November 11, 2020

An Inside Look at The Elixir of Love

Madison Leonard (Adina) and Patrick Carfizzi (Dulcamara). Philip Newton photo

Back by popular demand, Seattle Opera presents The Elixir of Love, with music by Gaetano Donizetti and libretto by Felice Romani. Utterly enjoyable from first sip to last, this fizzy concoction is opera’s most winning comedy. A love-struck bumpkin is about to lose the company of a rich and independent landowner. Crossing paths with a quack doctor, he’s duped in more ways than one. Wine, a windfall, and a fateful furtive tear eventually reveal happy truths as sincerity triumphs amid much rejoicing.

Bumpkin buys a “magic love potion” from a snake-oil salesman in order to win the heartless flirt he adores. And, strangely, it works.

Gaetano Donizetti, photo courtesy of Bergen Public Library

"Gaetano Donizetti, in full Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti, (born Nov. 29, 1797, Bergamo, Cisalpine Republic—died April 8, 1848, Bergamo, Lombardy, Austrian Empire), Italian opera composer whose numerous operas in both Italian and French represent a transitional stage in operatic development between Rossini and Verdi. Among his major works are Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), La fille du régiment (1840), and La favorite (1840). In his serious operas he developed considerably the dramatic weight and emotional content of the genre, and his comic operas have a sparkling wit and gaiety all their own." Source: Britannica [read more].

is a lovesick swain, poor as dirt but with a rich offstage uncle. 
ADINA (SOPRANO) is the wealthy, educated landowner he adores. 
GIANNETTA (SOPRANO) is another girl from the village. 
BELCORE (BARITONE) is a handsome soldier with an enormous ego. 
DOCTOR DULCAMARA (BASS) is that encyclopedia of medicine, that benefactor of mankind, whose astonishing powers are known throughout the universe and beyond. 

In a pastel-colored village from the land of Italian comedy. 

Andrew Stenson (Nemorino) and Madison Leonard (Adina). Philip Newton photo

Nemorino pines for Adina, who thinks faithful love is nonsense and that it’s better to pursue a new love with each passing day. So when a traveling medicine-man comes to town to hawk his cure-all elixir, Nemorino spends his last zecchino to buy the fabled love potion of the legendary Queen Isolde. Dulcamara promises the boy all the ladies will be swooning for him within 24 hours, and this guarantee gives Nemorino the confidence to ignore Adina. Annoyed, she immediately tests Nemorino by becoming engaged to the fatuous Sergeant Belcore.

Nemorino, in panic, wants to buy more love potion, to speed up the effect. But, being broke, he has to enlist in Belcore’s regiment to be able to afford the doctor’s medicine. Meanwhile, the girls of the village learn that Nemorino’s rich uncle has died, leaving him a fortune. Suddenly, they shower him with love and attention. He (and the doctor) think the love-potion has worked; but Adina, seeing him happy and popular, grows despondent. She really did love him, she realizes, and now she has lost him. She buys back his contract from Belcore, confesses her love, and Dulcamara uses their happy-ever-after story to sell lots more magic elixir. 

 via Flickr/Thorvaldsens Museum/Jonathan Aprea

"Love potions reportedly date back as far as Biblical times. The Ancient Greeks ground up orchid, which they regarded as a powerful aphrodisiac, into a powder and added it to wine. They believed that this concoction could inspire passionate love in whoever consumed it. It was such a popular potion among the Greeks that the orchid plant actually went temporarily extinct. Another popular aphrodisiac incorporated into love potions during that time was the Spanish Fly, also known as the Blister Beetle. During the Middle Ages, if you had your eye on someone, you would whip up a special cake. But this wasn't your typical red velvet or Boston cream — after rubbing the dough into your armpits, genitals, and breasts (presumably, where most of your pheromones are emitted) to absorb your sweat, you baked the cake in the nude. At the time, it was believed to be an effective way to lock down your crush. In 16th century Europe, magical texts became increasingly popular — particularly with the release of a love potion instruction book called The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus: Of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones and Certain Beasts. One of the recipes entailed mixing crushed earthworms with periwinkle, which was supposed to boost affection between a husband and wife when consumed by one's spouse. Around that time, animal products became a common component in love potions, with recipes calling for anything from the fat of a snake and the head of a sparrow to the blood of a bat and the heart of a pigeon."—Rebecca Strong, Elite Daily [Read more]. 

Donizetti and Romani got this opera from a work written a couple years earlier for a French opera, Le philtre by Auber, with libretto by Scribe. (And Scribe stole the idea from an earlier work.) Eugène Scribe, one of the most influential writers in the history of theater, developed the kind of show known as “the well-made play” (la pièce bien-faite), a script where every line contributes to the forward-motion of the story and the overall effect. Often his shows are not particularly deep; but they’re extremely entertaining. Other operas you may know with plots by Scribe include The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory and Un ballo in maschera. Like The Elixir of Love, both of these concern con-artists who turn out inadvertently NOT to be the humbugs they believe themselves to be.

Lawrence Brownlee and members of the Seattle Opera Chorus in The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory. Philip Newton photo

Donizetti was one of opera’s most prolific composers. He churned out 80-some operas (the exact count varies depending on when a revision counts as a new opera) over the course of three decades. Today he is considered (along with Rossini and Bellini) one of the true masters of bel canto, a singer-focused kind of opera with the plot separated out into quick-moving recitative and magnificent arias and ensembles accompanied by small orchestras. Donizetti is perhaps best known for chiaroscuro, the immediate juxtaposition of light and dark. In comic opera, that makes him master of “the tear within the smile,” a sudden turn toward pain or compassion or tenderness in the midst of a cheery comedy. Elixir’s best-known music, the tenor aria “Una furtiva lagrima,” makes this magic effect at the turning-point of this show. Nemorino finally realizes and accepts that Adina really does love him thanks to the hidden tear he sees, gleaming in her eye. A flood of musical emotion washes through him, and thanks to the honey-sweet voices of our greatest lyric tenors, all of us.

From left: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999) by Warner Bros, a cover of The Clovers Love Potion No. 9 album from Redwood Records, "The Love Potion" by Evelyn De Morgan, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley in Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince by Warner Bros. Studios. 


A Midsummer Night’s Dream In Act 2 of this Shakespearian comedy, Oberon enlist his servient Puck on a search of a love-in-idleness, a flower that contains a powerful love potion.

The Love Potion, a 1903 painting by Evelyn De Morgan depicting a learned scholar, who is often mis-categorized as a witch because of the presence of a black cat.

Love Potion Number 9 is a popular tune written in 1959 by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller that was originally recorded by The Clovers. Susequent recordings were by The Searchers in 1964, Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass in 1965, and The Coasters in 1971.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the sixth book in the series. In it, Amortentia, an infatuation potion, makes Ron Weasley fall head-over-heels for Romilda Vain.

Vinson Cole (Nemorino), Jane Giering-De Haan (Adina) and Jason Howard (Belcore) in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, 1998 © Gary Smith

Visit to listen to music and watch videos about the production.

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