Thursday, 4 September 2008

Finding the true Elixir of Love

Gaetano Donizetti: inviting us to drink the Elixir of Love

Patrick Comerford

Dublin City Council’s open-air performances for “Opera in The Open 2008” reached its climax this afternoon (4 September) with Donizetti’s comic opera L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) in the Amphitheatre between Christ Church Cathedral and the Civic Offices on Wood Quay. Once again, I found that opera is good for the soul and that comedy and stories of love are good for the heart.

I sat in the sunshine with hundreds of others for a charming presentation of L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love). This is a melodramma giocoso in two acts by the Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), with an Italian libretto by Felice Romani, and had its premiere in Milan in 1832. It has since become one of the most frequently performed of Donizetti’s operas, and is best known for the plaintive aria Una furtiva lagrima (A furtive tear) – sung by Nemorino in Act II, Scene 2 – one of the most famous and often-recited arias in all of opera.

Other noted arias include: Quanto è bella, quanto è cara (How beautiful she is), sung by Nemorino in Act I, Scene 1; Come Paride vezzoso (Just as the charming Paris), by Sergeant Belcore in Act I, Scene 1; Della crudele Isotta (Of the cruel Iseult), by Adina in Act I, Scene 1; Udite, udite, o rustici (Listen, listen, o peasants), by Dr Dulcamara in Act I, Scene 2; and Prendi, per me sei libero (Take it, I have freed you), sung Adina in Act II, Scene 2.

The main characters in L’elisir d’amore are: Adina, a beautiful, a young, rich land-owning woman (soprano); Nemorino, a poor peasant farmer who falls in love with Adina (tenor); Sergeant Belcore, an over-confident and brash soldier (baritone); Dr Dulcamara, a travelling quack (basso buffo); and Giannetta, a village girl (soprano) – although Giannetta was absent from this afternoon’s performance.

This comic opera in two acts is set in a small Italian village in the early 19th century, and opens with Nemorino and the other farm workers listening to Adina telling the story of Tristan and Isolde, and their love potion. Nemorino knows that it is impossible to be in love with such a beautiful and smart woman. The self-important Sergeant Belcore arrives with his regiment and is smitten by Adina’s beauty. He gives her a flower and proposes to her in front of everyone, asking her to marry him at once.

The travelling quack salesman, Dr Dulcamara, who claims encyclopaedic knowledge, arrives in the town, peddling his bottles of potions. Nemorino remembers the story of Tristan and Isolde, and innocently asks Dulcamara if he has anything like Iseult’s love potion. Dulcamara claims he has the Elixir of Love – the potion that gives this opera its name. He says it will work within 24 hours, and sells Nemorino a bottle at a price matching all that Nemorino has in his pockets. Unknown to Nemorino, the bottle only contains cheap wine. Nemorino drinks the bottle and in his drunken state grows in confidence.

Emboldened by the “elixir,” he meets Adina. She teases him mercilessly, but not so much that in the audience we cannot catch a hint that the attraction might be mutual, despite her plans to marry the pompous sergeant in six days’ time. Nemorino still believes that he can win Adina’s love tomorrow because of the elixir, and so acts indifferently towards her.

An upset Adina is upset not only tries to hide her feelings, but ups the stakes by agreeing to marry Belcore immediately after the sergeant receives orders to join his regiment the next morning. However, Adina and Belcore notice Nemorino’s reaction to this news – the Sergeant resents this reaction, while Adina is filled with despair. Nemorino panics and cries out for Dr Dulcamara to come to his aid.

Act 2 opens with Adina’s wedding reception in full swing outdoors. Dr Dulcamara sings a song with Adina to entertain the guests. When the notary arrives to officiate, Adina is sad that Nemorino has not turned up. As everyone goes in to sign the wedding contract, Dulcamara stays outside, helping himself to food and drink.

When Nemorino arrives and sees the notary, he believes he has lost Adina. Frantically, he begs Dulcamara for more of his elixir, but this time wants a potion that works immediately. However, the desperate Nemorino is penniless and the doctor refuses, making his way inside. Belcore emerges on his own, wondering aloud why Adina has suddenly put off the signing their wedding contract. He asks Nemorino why he is feeling down. Nemorino says he has no money, and Belcore suggests that if he joins the army he can pay him immediately.

When Nemorino signs up, he gets cash on the spot from Belcore. Nemorino now thinks he can buy more of the elixir of love from Dulcamara, while Belcore thinks he is about to send his rival off to war. After drinking the second bottle of wine, the village girls begin to swarm around him. They have heard the news – which Nemorino has not yet heard – that his rich uncle has died, leaving him with a large inheritance.

Poor Nemorino is the worse for the weather having spent the cash he received from Belcore on more wine, deluded into believing that it is the “Elixir of Love.” In his drunken state, he thinks he is the object of the affections of the village women, not because of his inheritance but because of this second bottle of elixir.

When Adina sees Nemorino in such a jolly mood, she asks Dulcamara what has happened. The quack-doctor is not aware that Nemorino has fallen in love with Adina, and so he tells her the story of how the poor man is smitten, has spent his last penny on the elixir, and has signed his life away, joining the army to get more money, so desperate is he to win the love of some unnamed cruel woman.

At last, Nemorino’s sincerity dawns on Adina and regrets teasing him. She realises she has fallen in love with him, and is taken by the sincerity of his love. For his part, Dulcamara thinks her behaviour is some sort of condition that needs to be cured with one of his potions.

Nemorino appears alone and recalls a solitary a tear he saw in Adina’s eye when he was ignoring her earlier – the tear that gives the title to the plaintive aria he now sings, Una furtiva lagrima (A furtive tear). Of course, he is now convinced that Adina loves him.

Adina returns and asks why he has signed up for the army and is leaving. Nemorino tells her he wants a better life. Adina tells him he is loved, and that she has bought out his military contract. She offers him the redeemed contract, telling him he is free and that if he stays in town he will no longer be sad.

Nemorino takes the contract but as Adina turns to leave Nemorino thinks she is abandoning him and says that if he is not loved, if the elixir has not worked, if the doctor has fooled him, he might as well go anyway and die a soldier. Adina stops him and confesses that she loves him. Nemorino is ecstatic. When Adina begs him to forgive her for teasing him, they kiss and embrace.

Belcore returns to find the two in an embrace. Adina explains her love for Nemorino to a disdainful sergeant, who tells her there are plenty of other women in the world. Seeing his opportunity, Dr Dulcamara offers to provide the elixir for the sergeant’s next conquest. Everyone agrees the elixir has worked and they bid a fond farewell to the doctor.

A composer’s sad life

Along with Vincenzo Bellini and Gioacchino Rossini, Donizetti was one of the leading composers of bel canto opera. His most famous opera is Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), yet his most immediately recognisable work is the aria Una furtiva lagrima from L’elisir d’amore (1832).

Last year, I visited his grave in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo (right), and I was moved by the sad life this composer lived, despite the great love stories in his operas.

The youngest of three sons of a pawnshop caretaker, he was born in 1797 in the Borgo Canale quarter of Bergamo, just outside the city walls. His family was very poor, with no tradition of music, and the young Donizetti was not especially successful as a choirboy.

However, in 1806 he received a scholarship that allowed him to become one of the first pupils at the Lezioni Caritatevoli School in Bergamo, founded by Father Johann Simon Mayr, a priest at the principal church in the town and the composer of a number of successful operas. There he received detailed training in the arts of fugue and counterpoint, and there he launched his operatic career.

Writing in Naples, Rome and Milan, Donizetti achieved some success. In the space of just 12 years, he wrote 75 operas. Although the critics were not often impressed, he was usually a popular success, and when his Anna Bolena had its premiere in Milan in 1830, he almost instantly became famous throughout Europe.

When L’elisir d’amore was staged in 1832, it was deemed one of the masterpieces of the comic opera. After the success of Lucrezia Borgia (1833) boosted his reputation, Donizetti followed both Rossini and Bellini to Paris. But he soon returned to Naples to produce his masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor, based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor. This became his most famous opera, and one of the high points of the bel canto tradition, alongside Bellini’s Norma.

In 1838 he returned to Paris after the Italian censor objected to the production of Poliuto on the grounds that such a sacred subject was inappropriate for the stage. In Paris, he wrote La fille du régiment, which became another success.

More fame came with Don Pasquale in 1843. But by then Donizetti was showing signs of syphilis and what we now know as bipolar disorder. After being institutionalised in 1845, he was sent to Paris, where he was taken care of by his friends, including Verdi. But, after several years of insanity, his friends eventually sent him home to Bergamo, and he died there 160 years ago in 1848.

To add to this tragic tale, Donizetti and his wife Virginia Vasselli had three children, but none of them survived and she died tragically from cholera. Donizetti was buried in the cemetery of Valtesse but his body was later moved to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, where he was buried close to his former teacher, Father Johann Simon Mayr.

The true Elixir of Love

How many people do I know who have been drunk on love? How many people do I know who have wished they could find some magical potion that would allow the person they love to return that love – knowing there is no magic potion, that there is no magic wand that can make people or things the way we want them to be? How many of us have been confused about the loving signs and gestures of others, misinterpreting them and even spurning them?

L’elisir d’amore is a comic opera, but like all operas there are deeper truths underlying the story we see on stage. This is a story about true love: love that can never be bought, love that can never be earned, love that is only true when it is freely given, love that is offered unconditionally and without the expectation of anything in return or of any personal, selfish gain. It is a story about love willing to make itself impoverished and to lose everything, even though the loved one seems to have everything. It is a story of apparent disdain that can turn to compassion, compassion that can turn to redemptive love, and redemptive love that can turn to true love that brings about unity.

And in telling that story, Donizetti manages to make us think about to some of the key concepts and values that are at the heart of Christian love. For that alone, he deserves to be honoured in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College