The Met’s ELIXIR OF LOVE: Wine, Women and Song

I first heard about elixirs of love in 1959 when, through my transistor radio, I heard Jed Lieber’s words about

that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth
She’s got a pad on Thirty-Fourth and Vine
Sellin’ little bottles of Love Potion Number Nine

But the idea of a potent which causes love is ancient.

At the very start of Gaetano Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love the heroine Adina reads of the legendary Isolde’s use of such an elixir with Tristan. Stage literature features other elixirs. In Gilbert and Sullivan’s, The Sorcerer, a potion is employed ala A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to cause one to fall for the first person seen. Even Jo in Little Women writes a play featuring a love potion.

Historically, love potions seem to come In three varieties. The first follows the route of the one Puck uses in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The second type causes the love of a specific person. (This is the type purchased by Donizetti’s hero, Nemorino). The final variety simply puts one in the mood for love. This type is actually what Dulcamara sells – wine.

Gaetano Donizetti, like William Shakespeare, was a master of both the comic and tragic plot. With The Elixir of Love Donizetti gave operatic farce a shove in the direction of sentimental/romantic  comedy. The characters, however, remain rooted in stock comic types.

Adina, the wealthy sophisticated village girl, is a female version of the alazon, an arrogant, full-of-herself girl who is blind to her true nature. At the 2009 Glyndebourne production of The Elixir of Love, director Annabel Arden had Ekaterina Siurina play Adina as a true snob. Only the discovery that Nemorino had come to be the wealthiest person in the area prompted her to show him any affection at all. Her characterization cynically suggested that money was THE true elixir of love. In Bartlett Sher’s current Met production Pretty Yende plays Adina as a happy-go-lucky flirt, who enjoys keeping her suitors at bay. She especially enjoys her teasing torment of Nemorino. The anachronistic black silk top hat the character is given by designer Catherine Zuber suggests a subtle characterization. The only other top-hat wearer in town is the traveling con artist, and traveling snake oil salesman, Dulcamara. A descendant of the comedian’s Il Dottore, the character is a loquacious caricature pedant, Donizetti’s classic eiron, the con-artist. He and his assistants sell the heartsick lover, Nemorino, a supposed love potion, which is actually very strong wine. The top hats may represent a trickster fooling the gullible. Could Adina’s hat suggest that she too is a trickster, conning the eager Nemorino into loving her by feigning disinterest? When Adina finally falls for Nemorino her trickster hat is nowhere to be seen.

The young rustic Nemorino, Donizetti’s hero, carries on the tradition of the agroikos or bomolocus bumpkin-buffoon, a self-deprecating country fellow who turns out to be more than he and we thought. As played by Matthew Polenzani, Nemorino is not stupid, just innocent, trusting, and too shy for his own good.

The elixir gives Nemorino enough self-confidence to stop fawning over Adina. This change of behavior causes her to get hurt feelings as her charade begins to fail. Adina decides to revenge herself by marrying the soldier, Belcore.

The death of Nemorino’s rich uncle suddenly makes him a desirable catch for director Annabel Arden’s Adina, who breaks her engagement and buys off Nemorino’s enlistment contract, signed to gain a monetary bonus by which to buy a second bottle of magic elixir. Pretty Yende’s Adina pays off Nemorino’s enlistment fee unaware that he is a rich man. She loves him for who he revealed himself to be before his inheritance.

The opera’s events constitute what Elder Olson calls “a plot of folly conducted by a well-intentioned fool”[i], Nemorino. However, in this case the foolishness of the elixir actually does the trick. In fact, the elixir is the central device, the essence of this comedy. “The essence of Comedy is always that some redeeming truth has to be brought out of the shadows into the light.”[ii]

In vino veritas: Only when Nemorino is under the influence of the alcoholic potion can Adina see who Nemorino truly is – a man worthy of her love.

Discovering Nemorino’s identity causes a reversal in the course of the plot action. Such a reversal is, according to Aristotle the finest type of action for a comedy. “The discovery bringing friendship…and the reversal bringing success…, will most effectively occasion the pleasure and laughter which it is the function of comedy to arouse.”[iii]

The Elixir of Love develops the age-old battle between the City Slicker and the Country Bumpkin , a literary opposition dating back to Greek and Roman sources that persists to this day in high and popular culture.  The outcome never varies: the sophisticated overconfident Slicker (Adina) loses (succumbs) to the ostensibly witless though wily-wise Country Bumpkin, Nemorino. The narrative expresses the triumph of the pastoral ideal, the tradition out of which the story line emerges.  The Elixir of Love asserts that truth is most readily found, and a virtuous, civilized life is best lived, farthest from cities, and closest to nature.[iv]

The great tenor Matthew Polenzani first came to our attention singing an aria on Chicago’s PBS news show “Chicago Tonight”. His voice moved us to attend his performance in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. Subsequently we have enjoyed him as the tenor in Der Rosenkavalier, and Nadir in The Pearl Fishers. Nemorino reveals all of Polenzani’s many gifts in one dazzling performance. The pairing with the talented Pretty Yende seems to inspire him to new heights. His rendition of “Una furtive lagrima”, the B flat minor aria that made Enrico Caruso a female heartthrob, is the highlight of the current Met production. Polenzani and conductor Domingo Hindoyan team up to produce one of the most moving and beautiful moments, suggesting that Donizetti’s hand was led by the hand of God in the amazing piece’s composition. His singing moves the entire comedy into the category of Comédie larmoyante. Maestro Hindoyan’s conducting of the entire opera sets a standard for subsequent Donezetti’s comedy maestros.

Davide Luciano’s Belcore is a wonderful grandson of the commedia’s Braggart Soldier developed by the Roman comedien Plautus in 205 BC. If a snake could strut, it would be Luciano’s Belcore.  Ildebrando D’Archangelo’s huckster Dulcamara   is a delightful and ebullient 19th century Ron Popeil selling the Ronco product of the day.

As with his other collaborations with director Sher, designer Yeargen’s setting is suggestive and elegant. This time the rural landscape evokes the feeling of a painting by Jean-Francois Millet. The urban setting subtly nods homage to Italy’s pioneering development of single point perspective.

With this production Donizetti’s Elixir of Love retains its standing as a strong contender for the greatest romantic comic opera of all time. Matthew Polenzani emerges as the Nemorino of our time. And the brilliant Pretty Yende debuts to start a wondrous career.

[i] Elder Olson. The Theory of Comedy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1968.

[ii] Christopher Booker. The Seven Basic Plots. Why We tell Stories. London: Bloomsbury, 2004.

[iii] Lane Cooper. An Aristotelian Theory of Comedy with an Adaptation of the Poetics and a Translation of the Tractatus Coislinianus. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company,1969), p. 197.

[iv] Northrop Frye Anatomy of Criticism: Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press, 1957.

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