Some aspects of the life of the composer behind The Elixir of Love would be worthy of an opera in themselves. Born into poverty, in Bergamo, the young Gaetano Donizetti was taken under the wing of Johann Simon Mayr, the local Maestro di Capella. Mayr proved to be a generous benefactor who guaranteed Donizetti’s education and championed his musical talent.
Mayr’s faith in Donizetti was justified: he composed over seventy operas but still found time for other genres including symphonies, concertos, string quartets and church music. At the beginning of his career, rather than wait for a commission, Donizetti simply started writing. It was a policy that paid dividends and resulted in his first opera as a professional musician, Enrico di Borgogna, being staged in Venice a fortnight before his twenty-first birthday.
When it came to a rare failure, he just dusted himself off and began the next project. Unhappy with his lyrical tragedy, Ugo, conte di Parigi, Donizetti turned to comedy. The Elixir of Love, reputedly written in just six weeks and performed for the first time on 12 May 1832, remains one of the most popular operas in the repertoire.
Nemorino is in love with Adina. But shy and penniless, he cannot bring himself to tell her. In any case, Adina is surely far more likely to fall for the bumptious Sergeant Belcore. Enter Doctor Dulcamara, a trickster who knows an opportunity when he sees it. Peddling a love potion that is nothing more than cheap red wine, the only effect that Nemorino’s drunk behaviour has on Adina is to push her into Belcore’s arms.
Nemorino, desperate to buy another bottle of Dulcamara’s fake tonic, accepts Belcore’s offer of a bounty to enlist in the army, unaware that he has inherited a fortune. Adina, unsettled by his sudden popularity amongst the local girls in the village, realises that she loves Nemorino too. As she tries to fathom how she will win back Nemorino’s affection, Dulcamara spies another opportunity to sell his illicit wares.
Premiered in Milan at the Teatro della Canobbiana, The Elixir of Love returns once again to the Gran Teatro La Fenice and Venice, the city that saw Donizetti’s very first triumph.