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

The Elixir of Love Plot Outline

ACT I

The Elixir of Love begins with a brief prelude that seems to have little connection with the plot, especially the prelude’s overly serious second section. In any event, audiences in Donizetti’s time were not accustomed to sitting quietly during the overture. The curtain opens on an unspecified Italian village, and Gianetta leads the chorus in a sprightly melody which helps set the scene with an idyllic view of small-town life. This depiction of village life will be maintained throughout the opera. (In Cavalleria Rusticana, Pietro Mascagni created a similar mood at the beginning, only to reveal the dark underside of the society as the opera progressed.)

Nemorino has been standing to the side observing Adina, apparently the only literate person in the village, read to the people. He immediately changes the mood with a brief lament, “Quanto è bella, quanto è cara!” (“How beautiful, how dear”). He is hopelessly (he believes) in love with her, though he is intimidated by the fact that she is so much more learned than he is. (This aria is quite unusual if not unique in the annals of opera. How often do we hear a tenor praising the soprano for her mind, not merely her looks?) He is interrupted by Gianetta and the chorus repeating their earlier melody, and his now desperate lament forms a countermelody to theirs.

Adina, finding something amusing in the story, laughs out loud, and the villagers ask her to continue reading. In a light aria she recounts the story of Tristan and Isolde, giving it an unusual twist – an ending in which the lovers marry and live happily ever after. She and the chorus praise the power of the potion which caused the pair to fall in love. Another interesting twist, which will become important later, is that in her retelling the potion is to be consumed by the person wishing to be loved rather than by the person being pursued, contrary to our usual expectations of such potions. This helps preserve the innocence of the story.

Military music is heard offstage, and Belcore enters with his regiment. He presents Adina with a bouquet and brags how she, like all other woman, will not be able to resist his charms. From the music of his aria, it is clear that he is pompous and shallow, all surface and no depth. (In Carmen, Bizet likewise portrayed a one-dimensional baritone in the Toreador song, which is far less complex than the music assigned to Don José.) Though it is not clear if he has previously made Adina’s acquaintance, he proposes marriage, and Adina tells him she will need some time to think it over. In the following ensemble, Belcore presses his case and Adina mocks him for thinking he is God’s gift to womankind. The chorus express their doubt that Adina, who has been independent for so long, could fall for this twit, and Nemorino contemplates whether it is time to gather his courage and approach Adina himself.

Twenty minutes into the opera, we have our first recitative (sung speech). Belcore obtains permission to lodge his troops on Adina’s land. Nemorino and Adina are left alone on stage, and he declares his love. She replies that she cannot love and suggests that he would do better to visit his elderly uncle in order to insure his inheritance, which would be his only ticket out of poverty.

A lovely duet follows, in which Adina compares herself to a zephyr flying from flower to flower, while Nemorino declares that he is as constant as a river. Adina’s response, suggesting that Nemorino should be more like her, flying from one romance to the next, may call to mind, both musically and thematically, Violetta’s light-hearted response to Alfredo’s heartfelt “Un dì, felice” (“One day, happy”) in La Traviata.

A horn is heard in the distance, and the chorus enters, announcing that a stranger is approaching in a splendid coach. They speculate about his identity. Dulcamara, a self-proclaimed “doctor,” enters, plugging his wares. His big solo number, “Udite, udite” (“Listen, listen”), is a classic example of the patter song, an aria which entertains us simply by providing a tongue-twisting cascade of words. This was an almost obligatory element of operas of the era (think of Figaro’s “Largo al factotum” [“Make way for the factotum”] in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville), and the form has never lost its vitality. Gilbert and Sullivan made it a specialty. Examples from the Broadway musical might include “Trouble” from The Music Man and “Not Getting Married” from Company. Dulcamara sings at great length about the wonders his medicines can accomplish, and the villagers are clearly impressed.

Alone with Dulcamara, Nemorino asks if he might have a love potion for sale. Confused at first, Dulcamara quickly realizes that he indeed has such a potion (actually a bottle of cheap wine) and that it costs exactly the amount of money that Nemorino has in his pocket. In the duet which follows, Nemorino expresses his thanks while Dulcamara comments that he has traveled the world but has never found anyone quite so naïve. Musically, this number represents opera buffa (comic opera) at its best, as Dulcamara provides a rapid bass line to complement Nemorino’s expressions of excitement. Wishing to avoid the appearance of failure, Dulcamara tells Nemorino that the potion will take a day to work (coincidentally, the time it will take him to leave town) and swears him to secrecy.

Nemorino begins to drink the elixir, inadvertently getting drunk in the process. In the first of many plot ironies, the elixir which was to make him attractive to women has exactly the opposite effect. Adina observes him and is puzzled by his behavior, especially when he starts singing nonsense syllables. Feeling confident that the elixir will work the next day, he is flippant with her, leaving her hurt and puzzled. Belcore enters, and Adina is so angered by Nemorino’s new attitude that she tells the sergeant that she will accept his proposal. The wedding is set six days in the future. Nemorino, convinced that Adina will change her mind on the morrow, laughs, further antagonizing both Belcore and Adina, who cannot understand why he is not heartbroken.

Adina’s character poses some unusual problems at this point for an actress trying to portray her rather complex emotions. She seems genuinely ambivalent about her feelings toward Nemorino. She has refused his advances, but now seems intent on making him jealous. Perhaps she does not know her own mind. Is she really willing to throw her life away in marriage to the chauvinistic Belcore just to make Nemorino jealous? Does she realize all along she will never go through with it? Or is she tempted by the chance to marry the type of man society would consider a proper match for a woman of her refinement?

Gianetta enters, with the soldiers close behind. They inform Belcore that while he was courting Adina, new orders have arrived, requiring the regiment to relocate the next day. Belcore persuades Adina to move the wedding up to that very evening. Nemorino, of course, has a complete change of attitude. To a lyrical melody reminiscent of the one with which he first declared his love, he begs Adina to postpone the wedding, telling her she may soon have a change of heart. Belcore expresses his anger at this interference, but Adina, echoing Nemorino’s music, tells Belcore to ignore his irrational outbursts. The voices, expressing these contrasting emotions, are joined by the amused chorus in a towering ensemble. At this point, members of the audience are best advised to stop trying to follow the individual vocal lines and to sit back and enjoy the music.

The conventions of opera at that time demanded a big ensemble at the close of an act. The apparently happy couple go off to complete the wedding plans, the villagers look forward to the party, and Nemorino calls for the doctor to assist him as the curtain falls.


 

ACT II

The second act begins much like the first, with the villagers singing a joyful song, this time to the music of a tinny town band. (Verdi used a similar “onstage” band in the opening scene of Rigoletto.) This time, they are celebrating the upcoming wedding of Adina and Belcore. While Belcore thanks the people for coming, Adina nervously wonders why Nemorino has not arrived.

Dulcamara, who has quickly made himself at home among the villagers, announces that he has the sheet music for a canzonetta (song) that has become a hit in Venice, and he coaxes Adina into singing it with him. The song is a comic duet about a young woman who rebuffs the suit of a wealthy but elderly senator. Perhaps Dulcamara is subtly attempting to remind Adina to get her priorities straight and to reject the socially proper but loveless marriage she is about to enter. He alone understands the depth of Nemorino’s feelings for her.

The notary arrives to arrange for the signing of the marriage contract, and the people leave with him. Adina again comments on Nemorino’s absence, saying that her revenge on him will not be complete if he does not witness the wedding – but we suspect that there is more to it than that. Dulcamara is left on stage. Nemorino arrives and informs the doctor that he must have a potion that will make Adina love him immediately. Amazed at Nemorino’s continuing naiveté, he nevertheless tells him that another dose will do the trick. Nemorino tells him that he has no money, and Dulcamara leaves, suggesting that he look for him at the inn if he comes up with some cash.

Belcore enters. When Nemorino tells him of his plight, Belcore reminds him that new recruits in the army receive a twenty scudi signing bonus. With a callousness hardly befitting a bridegroom, Belcore reminds Nemorino that soldiers can get their fill of women in every town they pass through. Nemorino makes his “x” on the document, and Belcore exults that he has not only recruited a new soldier but has also disposed of his rival. As in the first act, there is a wonderful irony here, for this action will eventually lead Adina into Nemorino’s arms. Following their sprightly duet, including some of Belcore’s military-style music, the two leave.

Gianetta enters, leading a number of women from the town. She tells them that she has just heard from a reliable source (a peddler) that Nemorino’s uncle has just died and has left his considerable estate to Nemorino, who is now a millionaire. But she swears the women of the village to secrecy. Perhaps she wishes to woo Nemorino herself without him thinking that she is just after his money.

Nemorino arrives, drunk again on the elixir. This time, however, all of the women cluster around him. Dulcamara and Adina enter, and both are stunned to see Nemorino surrounded by women vying for his attention. Nemorino thanks Dulcamara for his potion, and Dulcamara is forced to wonder if the thing really works after all. In another ironic twist, Adina, seeing Nemorino happy, wonders if he really loves her.

Now Adina realizes that she must go on the offensive. She tells Nemorino that she has heard of his enlistment, and she believes he is making a big mistake. In the ensemble that follows, he displays the overconfidence in the elixir that he also showed in Act I, and her affection turns to anger, while Dulcamara is overjoyed that his bogus elixir actually works and envisions the riches that await him.

Adina is left alone with Dulcamara. She expresses her amazement that Nemorino has won the affection of so many women. Dulcamara tells her that the secret is in his elixir. Realizing the reason that Nemorino was so desperate for cash that he was willing to enlist in the army, Adina now appreciates the depth of his love, and the recruitment which was to be Nemorino’s downfall becomes the very thing which allows him to win Adina’s heart. Recognizing that Adina not only is in love but now sees herself as having rivals for Nemorino’s attention, Dulcamara offers to sell her the elixir, but she is convinced that she has other means to reach her beloved – a tender look and a modest smile. Dulcamara finally agrees that her charms are stronger than any potion he could sell her. (Listen here how the basso buffo voice provides a pulsating bass line for the conclusion of their duet.) They leave, and Nemorino enters.

The stage is now set for some pure magic; you might even wish to reach for a handkerchief at this point. A plaintive bassoon introduces the aria “Una furtive lagrima” (“One furtive tear”). Nemorino has seen a tear in Adina’s eye, and he now realizes that she loves him. This is the greatest moment of his life, and as the aria concludes, he exclaims “Let me die of love.” In the words of Patrick J. Smith (critic and former editor of Opera News), “This romanza distills the opera’s potion into one moment, and that it why its fame as a separate recital piece is irrelevant. It captures the play of sunlight and shadow that must be at work, thereby allowing us to realize that what Donizetti wrote was far more than a collection of good tunes to be ground out on a barrel organ.” Critic Frank Merkling sees it as representing a major transition from the classic to the romantic era: “It portends a coming world of twilight trysts at fountains, of lovers who die for each other, indeed of all the notions that crowd Adina’s girlish head as she devours her medieval romances and the rest – as she dallies with the Dark Ages.” The idea for this aria, incidentally, was entirely Donizetti’s, as it was not included in Romani’s original draft of the text.

Adina returns to the scene. Logically, the story should be over at this point, but in true romantic-comedy fashion, the lovers are not yet ready to declare their love, each wanting the other to speak first. Adina reveals that she has bought out Nemorino’s military contract, but she will give as her reason only that “everyone” in town loves him and that his luck might change some day. To a sweet melody reminiscent of their earlier duet, she asks him to stay. Nemorino asks if she has anything else to say, but she says she has nothing to add. Nemorino angrily tells her that if she does not love him, he might as well die in battle. Furthermore, he now believes that Dulcamara may have deceived him. In one of the most understated declarations in all opera, Adina tells him that Dulcamara did not lie. Finally, she says those critical words: “I love you.”

It is finally time to wrap things up. Belcore enters, and Adina gives him the bad news. Though angered, he tries to put on a positive attitude, declaring that there are plenty of other woman who will be glad to marry him. Ever the opportunist, Dulcamara offers to sell Belcore his elixir, and pointing to the happy lovers as an example, he informs the people of the village that their union proves the effectiveness of his elixir.

A reprise of the canzonetta that opened the act lets us know that the opera is drawing to a close. Dulcamara continues his sales pitch to the appreciative crowd, who, along with the happy lovers, praise the doctor’s wisdom and all but drown out Belcore’s curses. To the cries of “Addio,” (“Goodbye”) Dr. Dulcamara leaves the village to work his magic elsewhere, as the curtain falls.

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