Thursday, December 29, 2011

Love Potion Numero Uno: Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore (The Elixir of Love) and the Quintessence of Comic Opera

(This essay was written for the February 10th, 2012 Opera Company of Brooklyn performance of Gaetano Donizetti's tender comic masterpiece, L'Elisir d' Amore,  at the new Di Menna Center for Classical Music in midtown Manhattan).

       Many are those who are still itching to know how and why Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) achieved rock-star status in the world of nineteenth century opera. Well, there certainly are a number of enduring reasons to admire  that brilliant composer from Bergamo, Italy.  To begin, Donizetti was master of three  types of musical composition:  choral, orchestral and operatic. He created masterpieces in several Italian and French  operatic genres. He wrote for the Paris Opera, coming through with flying colors in his masterpieces La fille du regiment and La Favorite. Opera lovers who need a dose or two of musical tragedy in their lives can put Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Anna Bolena on their “favs’ lists. Posterity includes Donizetti along with his Italian countrymen Gioacchino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini in that triumvirate of composers who perfected the operatic form known as bel canto, a style of singing that began in the mid- 1700s and reached its apex in the early nineteenth century in the works of these masters.  But it was as a composer of comic opera, opera buffa and opera comica as they are known, that Donizetti shone. His sparkling farces L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love or The Love Potion) and Don Pasquale remain fresh, funny and vital to this day, and are among the most popular operas performed, both here and abroad.
Gateano Donizetti
    In the early 1800s, bel canto opera was all the rage. Bel canto was to music of that era what the best Broadway musicals are today – a popular style with smash hits, and Gaetano Donizetti was its Richard Rodgers.  Donizetti did not invent anything musically new, even though Beethoven was doing just that at the same time as Donizetti was composing. Donizetti did not invent a new operatic style as Wagner was soon to create.  Rather, Donizetti took the musical idiom of bel canto and raised it to its apotheosis. Bel canto incorporated within its rubric several critical and difficult-to-master vocal skills: an impeccable legato throughout the range, a lightness of tone in the higher registers, an ability to dispatch the embellished vocal lines of the fioritura,  a delicate and restrained vibrato, and crystalline, limpid diction. Donizetti's operatic compositions were all in this bel canto style, whether they were great tragic operas like Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia  or Lucia Lammermoor, or the witty and tuneful comedies. He took comic opera, which for over a century had been the very stylized opera buffa with its stock characters right out of the commedia dell'arte  playbook (viz., Pulcinella, Pierrot  and company), and transformed those simple cardboard cut-out figures and that style of music into opera comica, true comic opera, where the characters were real-life people, with real-life foibles, feelings and passions. That was Donizetti's genius and our reward.

    Italians were among the most prolific of all composers. Vivaldi wrote over 700 works, Monteverdi over 200 and likely many more, Rossini over 200 as well, Verdi close to 100, and Donizetti  himself over 500, seventy-five of which were operas!  But the question that needs to be asked is: "Is this composer capable of prolific musical production without sacrificng quality?"  Fortunately for us, in the case of Donizetti, the answer is a resounding  "Yes!" Donizetti's music, especially his operatic music, whether serious or comic, was uniformly of the highest quality.

Felice Romani (1788-1865)
Donizetti's librettist for
Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia
and L'Elisir d'Amore

    As with so many of the great operatic partnerships of composer and librettist (Mozart and da Ponte, Gounod and Barbier,  and Puccini and Illica immediately come to mind), Donizetti was quite fortunate in having the successful and sophisticated Felice Romani as his musical partner.  Romani wrote the libretti for Bellini’s Il Pirata, I Capuleti  e I Montecchi, La Sonnambula  and Norma; for Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia; and for Donizetti’s first major triumph, the 1830 masterpiece Anna Bolena, and Lucrezia Borgia, which premiered in 1833  Romani also wrote a libretto that Verdi later used for his  early opera, the opera comica,  Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day). Now that’s pretty impressive “credits” for any librettist.

    Donizetti was said to have written L’elisir d’amore in the spring of 1832 in the space of but three weeks;  Romani, wrote the libretto for it in eight days!  Apparently, these feats of compository prestidigitation and pyrotechnics were common at that time. Rossini wrote his brilliant opera,  Il Barbiere di Siviglia  (The Barber of Seville) in a little over  three weeks, prompting Donizetti to yawn to Felice that " that Signor Rossini is so lazy.”!? And there is strong evidence that Donizetti composed virtually the whole final act of his opera La Favorite  in but three hours !

    Then, as now, there were templates in place to make writing librettos and composing operas somewhat formulaic, thus at least partly explaining their speed of composition. The story of L’Elisir did not spring fully formed from Romani’s head, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. Rather, Romani cleverly transcribed and then doctored a libretto that had been previously written by librettist with the very appropriate last name of  Scribe for the 1831 opera, Le Philtre (The Love Potion), by the composer Daniel Auber.
Donizetti's favorite soprano
Eugenia Tadolini
as Adina in the
1842 Naples revival of L'Elisir

     Hmmmmm. So, did Romani and Donizetti plagiarize from Scribe and Auber?  Not really. When one thinks about it, there are only so many story lines to draw from in opera. The usual suspects are the themes of eternal love, mixed up love, mixed up lovers, mistaken identity, infidelity, unrequited love, jealousy, love lost and then found, a mad scene for spice, and, oh yes, someone always dying, either of a dreaded disease, a gunshot wound, or both. These represent most of the core plots which have gotten mashed up and reworked in countless operas over the centuries. With L’Elisir,  Donizetti and Romani were just doing what everybody else in the opera world was doing, especially at the time; to wit, dipping into this minestrone of storylines, borrowing from here, adapting from there, and presto change-o !  you have another opera, this one happening to be a comic masterpiece.

    Donizetti described L’Elisir as a melodramma giocoso. In Italian, the word melodramma does not carry all of the nuanced import that the word  melodrama does in our language.  Melodramma simply means opera in Italian. So a melodramma giocoso is nothing more than the Italian term for a comic opera. However, the opera does begin with a little bit of serious literary history. Our heroine, the wealthy, proud, beautiful  and fickle Adina, is first seen and heard as she reads, then sings and summarily dismisses, the story of Tristan and Isolde. The Tristan legend dates back over a millennium and while there are several versions of the story, in one of which Tristan is mortally wounded, all the variants, prose and poetic, have Tristan and Isolde drinking a love potion, an elixir of love, thus sealing their eternal affection for each other. Adina laughs off the story, saying that thankfully love potions don't exist anymore to ensnare and enslave women's emotions. Little does she know, as the opera unfolds.

     L’Elisir premiered at the Teatro della Canobbiana in Milano on May 12, 1832, after only four rehearsals and to great acclaim, even though Donizetti had confided to Romani on opening night with the famous comment that “it bodes well that we have a German prima donna, a tenor who stammers, a buffo who has a voice like a goat, and a French basso who isn’t up to doing much.”  The musicologist Charles Osborne wrote that the critic of the Gazzetta Privilegiata di Milano felt that “the style of the score is lively, and brilliant. The shading from buffo to serio takes place with surprising gradations and the emotions are handled with musical passion. The orchestration is always brilliant and appropriate to the situation. It reveals a great master at work, accompanying a vocal line now lively, now brilliant, now impassioned.” One of Donizetti’s early composition instructors, Simon Mayr, confirmed that the opera was "inspired throughout with joy and happiness."

Dr. Dulcamara comes to town
hawking his magical elixirs of love
in the 1968 "Wid West"
 Cincinnati Opera production
    The names of many of the principals in L’Elisir were purposely chosen by Donizetti and Romani to relate to love. As the etymological sleuths of the San Francisco Opera education department have uncovered, Belcore means “good heart” or “beautiful heart” (derived from bel  cuore in Italian);   Adina is Hebrew for “refined or gentle;”  Dulcamara is a combination of the Latin words  for “sweet” (dulcis, dulce)  and “sour” (amarus, amara), adjectives which certainly define its owner;  and Gianetta likely stems from  Gianna, which is Hebrew for “gracious.” Only Nemorino has a name which is curiously not love-related. Nemorino means “the little nobody,” and stems from “nemo,”  the Latin word for “nobody” or “no one.” Indeed, for much of the opera, almost until the final glorious moments when he and Adina unite, Nemorino is portrayed by Donizetti and Felice as a “nobody.” In addition, there is a nice symmetry in the first names of both the composer and the librettist of this operatic love story: "Gaetano" is related to the word "gaiezza," which means "happiness," and  "Felice" means "happy."  How serendipitous is that !

    Now let us not necessarily judge a hero by his first name, for Nemorino, while his name evidently doesn't mean very much at all, is a truly inspired character, a grand hero of the stature of Tristan and Romeo. Nemorino's heart-breaking second act aria, Una Furtiva Lagrima (A Single, Hidden Tear), with that plaintive introduction by the bassoon and echo by the clarinet, is so well known that it has become an emblem for all of opera (okay, okay, an emblem  for all of opera along with Puccini's Nessun Dorma from Turandot). Even musical novices can sing Nemorino's aria (despite it being in the distant key of Bb minor, the relative minor of an equally distant key, Db major):

The words to Una Furtiva Lagrima are so famously beautiful, so lyrical in the original Italian, and so poignant in any language that they deserve to be memorialized here (the English translation is mine):
Una furtiva lagrima
negli occhi suoi spuntò:
Quelle festose giovani
invidiar sembrò.
Che più cercando io vo?
M'ama! Sì, m'ama, lo vedo.
Un solo istante i palpiti
del suo bel cor sentir!
I miei sospir, confondere
per poco a' suoi sospir!
I palpiti, i palpiti sentir,
confondere i miei coi suoi sospir...
Cielo!  Si può  morir!
Di più non chiedo, non chiedo
Ah, cielo! Si può! si può morir!
Di più non chiedo, non chiedo
Si può morire! Si può morir d’amor.
A single, hidden tear
began to form in her eyes:
She seemed to be envious of
those playful youths.
What more do I need to look for?
She loves me! Yes, I see that she loves me.
If only for an instant to feel the beating
Of her beautiful heart!
My sighs for a moment melded
fleetingly with hers !
To feel her heart beating, beating,
My sighs melded with hers as one...
Heaven ! Yes, I could, I could die!
I do not ask for more.
Oh, heaven ! Yes, I could! Yes, I could die!
 I do not ask for more, I do not ask
Yes I could die. I could die of love.

    The aria was so indelibly essayed by the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso that the Metropolitan Opera revived L'Elisir just for him in 1904 at the old opera house on Broadway and 39th street.

Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)
when he recorded Una Furtiva Lagrima
in 1904, as heard in this youtube

    And in our own time, Luciano Pavarotti defined the role of Nemorino as no one else could have.   

    They say that Donizetti got ill in 1843 and went to Paris for treatment. They say that he was manic-depressive and may have contracted syphilis. They say that he died insane in 1848, at the age of 51, back in Bergamo at the home of friends. What posterity can say is the following:  that opera conjured by the masterful musical alchemist Gaetano Donizetti became a coruscating diamond, a jewel which still dazzles. He crafted a king's ransom of operatic treasures of  such poignant tragedy and comic happiness which continue, almost two hundred years later, magically to resonate in our hearts and spirits today. Bravo, Gaetano, Bravissimo!

Copyright 2012  Vincent de Luise MD   A Musical Vision

1 comment:

  1. I should try and see this opera, the poem is so beautiful, I can definitely relate!