Gaetano Donizetti’s opera buffa, L’elisir d’amore – lower case “e” and “a”, please, unlike the Met who screwed up with capitals all over the place – was written in 1832, at a crossroads for Italian opera. Buffa was on the point of giving way to seria. Gloomy northern, Germanic influences were heading south. Shakespeare loomed on a Verdi horizon.
Italy was still a patchwork of kingdoms run by the Austrian Habsburgs, and Bourbons reinstated after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. They had been booted out of their city states by Boney during the Napoleonic wars.
In the hands of director Bartlett Sher, this L’elisir is given an ever so subtle political dimension. At the time of writing the piece the Risorgimento was on the march, seeking a united Italy under the ludicrous premise that Italy might be run better by Italians. Fortunately, no mystery camper vans were involved in this independence campaign.
It is one of the enduring wonders of the world that arguably the world’s most civilised country, boasting culture second to none, fabulous cuisine, fine wines, and, from a visitor’s vantage point at least, a relaxed and prosperous lifestyle, has survived lunatic politicians for centuries.
Sixty-six governments since World War II, including one led by a Mussolini-like bunga-bunga bombast with sprayed-on tan and boot-blacked hair. Shrugging Italians get on with life regardless, crafting Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Fiat Puntos. Writing operas.
Politics in Italy has always been as varied as a pizza menu and Sher decided to inject a spicy topping into the action at the Met. Dulcamara, the quack potion pedlar who sells the hero, Nemorino, the fake elixir that will make the inn owner/farmer, Adina, fall in love with him, parks his carriage – arguably a sort of camper van- in the village. The front doors open and a huge range of bottles “oohs” the crowd.
But, stealthily, a couple of scruffs open the back and quietly unload a supply of rifles which they proceed to conceal in the inn. They are Garibaldi’s men. Meanwhile, a company of soldiers visiting the village is absorbed by Dulcamara’s theatrics. Classic diversionary tactics. That’s a trick missed in every other production I’ve seen. And not much was made of it here. Very clever.
Sher, a well-established American director, is best known for his Broadway productions and has developed a reputation for being quirkily inventive. He first ventured into opera at the Lincoln Center in 2006, with Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, and notably directed Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, a joint Met/English National Opera production, in 2013.
L’elisir is set in an isolated rural village where the sense of community spirit is intense. The idyll is broken by outsiders, Dulcamara, the quack and a soldier, Belcore, who woos Adina and sets up a marriage that never takes place.
Time to find out what’s going on here!!! To the stage.
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Nemorino, a young, rather dopey villager, is unhappily in love with the beautiful farm and inn owner Adina, who he thinks is beyond his reach. Adina is a piece of work. Intellectually superior. She tells the gathered peasants about the book she is reading – the story of how Tristan won the heart of Iseult by drinking a magic love potion.
A regiment of soldiers arrives, led by the pompous Sergeant Belcore, who immediately introduces himself to Adina, unlike Nemorino does not muck about, and in short order asks her to marry him. Adina – wanting to wind up the hapless Nemorino – declares that she is in no hurry to make up her mind but promises to think over the offer.
Left alone with Nemorino, Adina tells him that his time would be better spent in town, looking after his sick, rich uncle, than hoping to win her love. She suggests that he do as she does, changing affections every single day. Nemorino reminds her that one can never forget one’s first love.
Here comes the quack gunrunner, Dr Dulcamara, a traveling purveyor of patent medicines, arriving in the village advertising a potion capable of curing anything. Nemorino shyly asks him if he sells the elixir of love described in Adina’s book. Dulcamara, who has never heard of Tristan, claims he does, but it’s a bottle of cheap Bordeaux.
Nemorino will have to wait until the next day – when the doctor will be gone – to see the results. Though it costs him his last ducat, Nemorino buys and immediately drinks it. Nemorino begins to feel the effect of the “potion” – pissed – and, convinced he will be irresistible to Adina the next day, feigns cheerful indifference towards her.
Contrarily surprised and hurt, Adina gets her own back, flirting with Belcore. When orders arrive for the sergeant to return immediately to his garrison, Adina agrees to marry him at once. The shocked Nemorino begs her to wait one more day, but she dismisses him and invites the entire village to her wedding. Nemorino desperately calls for the doctor’s help.
At the pre-wedding feast, Adina and Dulcamara entertain the guests with a song. Adina wonders why Nemorino isn’t there. She doesn’t want to sign the marriage contract until he appears. Rub his nose in it.
Meanwhile, Nemorino asks Dulcamara for another bottle of the elixir. If it’s not working, try more. Since he doesn’t have any money left, the doctor agrees to wait so Nemorino can borrow the cash. Belcore is bewildered that Adina has postponed the wedding.
When Nemorino tells him that he needs money right away, the sergeant, who understands the villager is perhaps the cause of the delayed nuptials, persuades him to join the army and receive a volunteer bonus. Nemorino buys more elixir and suddenly finds himself besieged by a group of women.
Unaware of the news that his uncle has died and left him a fortune, he believes the elixir is finally taking effect. Adina feels responsible for Nemorino’s enlistment, but her concern turns to jealousy when she sees him being hounded by the rest of the village beauties. Dulcamara boasts about the power of his elixir and offers to sell Adina some, but she is determined to win Nemorino all on her own.
Nemorino has noticed a tear on her cheek when she saw him with the other women. Bingo! She cares after all! Adina returns to tell Nemorino that she has bought back his enlistment papers. When he again feigns indifference, she finally confesses that she loves him.
Belcore appears to find the two embracing and redirects his affections to another village girl, Giannetta, declaring that thousands of women await him elsewhere.
Dulcamara, who has clearly yet to encounter the Federal Drugs Administration, brags to the crowd that his miraculous potion can make people fall in love and even turn poor peasants into millionaires. The sanctity of village life is restored after the rude intervention of these outsiders, one a fake, the other arrogant.
L’elisir d’amore is a wonderful introduction to opera for anyone hesitating to take on Wagner’s Ring as a first outing. It is fun, makes some sharp points about the perversity of human nature and reminds us always to “read the label”.
Donizetti was at the peak of his powers. He was to write 65 operas during his relatively short lifetime. He died at the age of 51 in 1948. His librettist was Felice Romani, responsible for 80 works, set to music by 125 composers. Puts Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in their boxes. Composer and librettist knocked out L’elisir in six weeks.
Originally associated with Vincenzo Bellini, who died in 1838 at the horribly young age of 34, Romani began a long relationship with Donizetti. Bitchiness was rife in Italian audiences, who “hated to see Donizetti’s success while Bellini lay in his grave”. Celeb Twitter spats today are nothing compared with the rivalry of opposing composer camp followers at La Scala, Milan in the early 1800s.
The music is rollickingly fabulous and Xabier Anduaga, a Spanish tenor, making his Met debut, who sang Nemorino was outstanding. A voice as clear as a bell, with little vibrato, filled the house and brought him a standing ovation. He was also young enough to play the abject Nemorino convincingly. Fat guys in their 50s just don’t hack it.
Aleksandra Kursak, the Polish soprano, sang Adina. She was suitably bossy. Sadly, I was unable to fact check the bossiness with her husband, Roberto Alagna, the French/Italian tenor, who must know for sure. She was the perfect Adina, always in control, making Nemorino dance to her tune.
Sher’s production – gun running apart – was traditional and set in period. It tapped the spirit of bucolic, rural simplicity tainted by intrusion from the great yonder perfectly. This was a favoured theme of the era. Bellini’s La sonnambula of 1831 was set in an Alpine village disturbed by the arrival of a stranger, a lost count.
Then, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor of 1835 took the plot device further afield, to a village in the hills of the Scottish Borders. And after that Italian opera became fixated on Shakespeare, notably through Giuseppe Verdi’s history operas.
L’elisir d’amore may mistakenly be seen as merely lightweight fluff. Rather, Donizetti’s crowd pleaser was the opening of the door to late Rossini, Verdi, verismo and the pre-eminence of Italian opera for the next century. That is, if one subscribes to the view that Richard Wagner worshipped in his own Bayreuth temple, a world apart.
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