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What’s the Score: L’elisir d’amore

What is Donizetti's L’elisir d’amore all about?

L’elisir d’amore – it sounds very exotic, but what does it actually mean?

It’s Italian for ‘The Elixir of Love‘ or ‘The Love Potion‘.

Fancy…

Not really – Donizetti, the composer, was a bit like a 19th-century Lin Manuel Miranda or Andrew Lloyd Weber, writing great tunes and funny, feel-good shows full of human drama. This is popular, leave-the-theatre-whistling-the-tunes music with a foreign accent. Frankly love just sounds better in Italian.

Can’t argue with that. A Room With A View, Eat, Pray Love, Il Postino, La Dolce Vita….

Ahem

Sorry, got swept away for a moment there. So it’s a love story then?

Yes, one of the opera’s greatest love stories – great because it’s so beautifully simple. L’elisir isn’t one of your grand kings-and-empires operas, it’s just a classic romantic comedy about the Boy Next Door.

I’m listening…

We’re in small-town Italy. Nemorino is in love with Adina, the beautiful, charismatic local landowner. But he’s just a peasant and thinks he doesn’t stand a chance with a girl so far out of his league. So when travelling salesman Dr Dulcamara rolls into town, Nemorino buys a love potion to help win Adina’s heart.

A magic potion, really? Does it work?

No spoilers here, but if I tell you that Nemorino is often described as a ‘male Cinderella’ that gives you some idea of his chances of living happily ever after, with or without a little magical intervention.

If he’s Cinderella what does that make Adina, then?

She’s a really likeable heroine – Princess Charming-when-she-wants-to-be. Properly fallible and human (she goes to some serious lengths to make Nemorino jealous when she believes that he has rejected her), she makes mistakes and picks herself up again. By the end of the opera you feel that both she and Nemorino have grown and grown up. Theirs is one of the operatic romances you’d put money on going the distance.

You’ve said that Donizetti was writing in the 19th century, but I can’t see a lot of bonnets or breeches in the production photos…

No, Annabel Arden’s production updates the action to the 1940s, which gives this small Italian town the wonderful sense of a world on the brink. We know that the rise of fascism and the Second World War will bring an end to all this innocence (and in fact an army platoon arrive in the town during the opera itself), so there’s a feeling of this as the last glorious summer.

Moving the action forward also brings a new charge to the piece’s sexual politics. We’re on the brink of social as well as political revolution, and Adina, who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go after it, is leading the charge for women everywhere.

Peter Auty performs ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
You’ve told me lots about the story and the setting, but what about the music itself?

The score is the opera’s biggest selling point. Donizetti is like a sketch-artist with music, using tiny touches of melody or orchestration to paint a really vivid portrait of individual characters. So Nemorino sings these wonderfully open-hearted, big melodies including the opera’s biggest hit ‘Una furtiva lagrima’, while Adina’s music is much more light-footed and vivacious. Dr Dulcamara, the quack, has a true salesman’s patter; words and music come tumbling out of him with chattering urgency and bags of charm. There’s also a large chorus, who all add to the clamour and bustle and exuberant chaos of this classic opera.

By Alexandra Coghlan


L’elisir d’amore is on stage this Festival 2023 and autumn 2023

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