Photo by The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

A Timeless Love Story

To open our Spring season, we turn from the melancholy Rusalka to the ultimate feel-good opera, Donizetti and Romani’s L’Elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love). Other works may touch us more deeply, or impress us more with musical subtlety, but none shine as brilliantly as this exuberant comedy. It is hard to believe that nearly a century ago Elixir had almost dropped out of the standard repertoire and only the great Caruso’s desire to play the lead kept it in the public spotlight, but ever since then this opera has been a favorite of the public.

What is the secret of this opera’s success? One might be tempted to cite the abundance of beautiful tunes, but the history of opera has demonstrated that in this art form great music never exists independent of the text which inspired it. All of the great opera composers have recognized this as well and have realized that their success must always rest on the qualities of the libretti they find. Three factors above all others have made this opera beloved throughout the years.

First, Romani’s libretto represents a perfect comic plot in which all of the plot incidents fall into place just right. Whereas in most operas the barriers to uniting the lovers are external – social pressures, family, etc. – here the conflicts rest within the characters themselves. A second factor, one especially relevant for our times, is the depiction of a heroine, Adina, who represents a sort of feminist fantasy. Some feminist writers have expressed a dislike for opera because women generally appear as victims. Yet Adina is not only financially independent but also free from social constraints in her choice of a marriage partner. Moreover, she is the best-educated person in the village. She may not always understand her own heart, but she is clearly mistress of her own destiny. A third factor is the idyllic world in which the opera takes place. Elixir is an opera without a villain. Belcore may be a male chauvinist, but he is a comic buffoon; Dulcamara is a huckster, but he is a harmless one, and he does bring excitement to the towns where he sells his wares. Above all, Elixir is a beautiful love story, one to which anyone who has ever been in love can relate. When Nemorino sings his big “hit song” aria “Una furtive lagrima,” try not to focus on the tenor’s voice or the beauty of the melody, but think instead of that magical moment in your own life, if you have had one, where you suddenly realized that your love was reciprocated and that your life would never be the same. Only then will you experience the power of this magical elixir that Donizetti and
Romani have created.

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