Donizetti set the opera in his native Italy around the end of the 18th century, but this Lyric Opera production has been relocated to small-town America and set in the early 20th century. This synopsis reflects the Lyric Opera production setting.
In the town square, local schoolteacher Adina reads the story of Tristan and Isolde to the townspeople during a harvest celebration. She describes how Tristan won Isolde’s love with a love potion. From afar, Nemorino, the local ice cream man, longs for Adina’s love.
Army recruiting officer, Sergeant Belcore, arrives in town and declares his passion for Adina, but she refuses him. Nemorino finally gathers the courage to declare his love for Adina, but she refuses Nemorino too. She advises Nemorino to take care of his sick uncle and do as she does – not allow herself to become attached to just one person.
A travelling salesman, Dr. Dulcamara, appears in town, claiming to possess potions that can cure any ailment. Nemorino timidly asks if Dr. Dulcamara sells a love potion. Dulcamara offers Nemorino a cheap bottle of wine, claiming that it is, in fact, an elixir of love. Nemorino uses the very last of his money to procure the “elixir” and drinks it. However, Dulcamara explains that the effects of the elixir will not set in until the next day, which just so happens to be after Dulcamara plans to leave town.
When Adina returns, an emboldened Nemorino ignores her, certain that the elixir will cause Adina to fall in love with him the next day. Frustrated that Nemorino is ignoring her, Adina flirts with Sergeant Belcore. Belcore proposes to Adina and she accepts. When Belcore discovers that he must report for duty the next day, Belcore and Adina decide to wed that very evening.
Adina is disappointed that Nemorino has not arrived at her wedding; she postpones the wedding until his arrival. Nemorino frantically rushes to find Dr. Dulcamara; he implores Dulcamara for a stronger, faster-acting elixir. Dulcamara says that he does have a stronger elixir, but it will cost twice the price of the original elixir. To get the money, Nemorino enlists in the army.
Meanwhile, the townspeople have found out that Nemorino’s rich uncle has passed away, and has left all of his wealth to Nemorino. After drinking the second bottle of “elixir” (wine), Nemorino arrives at the wedding where all of the women begin to flirt with him. Nemorino attributes the newfound attention to the fast-acting “elixir.” Adina enters and becomes jealous. Dulcamara offers to sell Adina some of the elixir too, but Adina declines and says that she does not need an elixir to fall in love.
Determined to win back Nemorino, she tells him that she has bought back his enlistment papers and declares her love. Nemorino kisses her. Belcore arrives in time to see their kiss, and decides to leave, asserting that there are thousands of women waiting for him elsewhere. Much to Dulcamara’s delight, the townspeople praise the incredible powers of his elixir of love.