No doubt about it, “L’Elisir d’Amore” is a potboiler.
Brimming with stock characters, melodramatic story line and the sudden discovery of a rich uncle, “The Elixir of Love” couldn’t be more predictable. To get through The MET Live in HD production this Saturday, view Donizetti’s romp as a silly and improbable satire.
The live-streamed Met production will start earlier than usual. The curtain will go up at 10 a.m. in the Fort Lewis College Student Union. Expect three hours of formulaic nonsense underlying some truly beautiful music.
The story of a handsome, lower-class young man pining over a cool, aristocratic beauty has been worn out by Hollywood. In the Europe of 1830, the comic tale spawned new interpretations on stage plus several cotton-candy operas. When the heroine falls for an egotistical braggart passing through town, stir in a complicating plot twist. Add a traveling salesman who specializes in general humbug, and you have the basic ingredients for a stew dating back to Roman comedy.
In the 1830s, the four stock characters found their way onto various European stages. First, an obscure Italian playwright, Silvio Malaperta, crafted “Il filtro” (The Love Filter). The play was so popular, it spawned a French opera, “Le Philtre,” by composer Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber and his librettist, Eugène Scribe. Their opera opened in Paris on June 15, 1831, and quickly became a sensation. It toured Europe and caught the imagination of young Gaetano Donizetti, 35.
Known as a quick study, Donizetti and his workaholic librettist, Felice Romani, turned around a new operatic version in less than a month. They changed the French Guillaume to Nemorino, Thérèsine to Adina, Sargent Jolicoeur to Sergeant Belcore and Dr. Fontanarose, the charlatan, to Dr. Dulcamara. The Donizetti-Romani “Elixir” opened in Milan on May 12, 1832, and it has delighted audiences ever since.
In Act I, Adina (soprano Pretty Yende), the mistress of a wealthy estate, in a benevolent act of white privilege, educates her illiterate peasants by reading “Tristan and Isolde” aloud on their lunch break. She’s indifferent to Nemorino (tenor Matthew Polenzani), who stands nearby besotted with his superior. Shortly, a rival appears, Sergeant Belcore (baritone Davide Luciano), who immediately flirts with Adina and proposes marriage.
“I’ll think about it,” Adina casually responds as Nemorino observes and agonizes.
Meanwhile, Dr. Dulcamara (bass Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) arrives in the village. He peddles any number of fake products, including cheap, red wine disguised as a magic love potion. In desperation, Nemorino squanders all his money on a bottle. Soon drunk, he behaves badly, while Belcore convinces Adina to wed and bed before he and his troops leave town.
When Act II opens, wedding arrangements are in full swing. Nemorino signs up for military service in order to buy more magic elixir with its cash bonus.
Apparently during intermission, word got out that Nemorino’s rich uncle died, leaving Nemorino a fortune. When Adina learns about it, she begins to change her mind about Sergeant Blowhard, and she buys up Nemorino’s military contract.
When Nemorino sees a tear on her cheek, he sings the most famous aria in the opera, “Una furtiva lagrima,” “a furtive tear.” You’ll know it when you hear it.
Now social equals, Nemorino and Adina will marry. And Belcore? Jovial as always, he knows there are other women waiting for him.
Donizetti chose to conclude with a touch of irony. Villagers buy out Dr. Dulcamara’s stock of fake elixir, and the con man gets the last word – a salesman’s fantasy.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.