The story is set in a village in the Basque country around the end of the 1700s
On a farm, while a group of country girls and boys were sitting in the shade under a tree, Adina, a rich tenant farmer who not only knows how to read and write , but is also learned, is reading them an old tale about Tristan and Isolde, who fall in love due to the effect of a magic potion. At a distance Nemorino, a young farmer is looking on. He is tormented by the love he feels for Adina as he feels he has nothing to offer her but love. Adina continues reading her story to the country people: Tristan, rejected by Isolde, drinks a love potion and in an instant conquers the heart of his loved one. Nemorino feels he is in the same situation and would like to obtain such a marvellous potion: he is only a poor and awkward farmer and is incapable of proclaiming his love to Adina. At this point Sergeant Belcore parades in with his troop. His conceit amuses Adina but with flirtatious jests and gallant words he is able to capture her attention and asks for her hand in marriage. When Adina and Nemorino are left alone, the latter uncomfortably declares his love for her but she tries to explain how useless his efforts to conquer her are as she is spoilt and fickle and her loyalty in love is sparse.
In the village square there is a lot of commotion. Doctor Dulcamara, a charlatan, who sells himself as a thaumaturge, passes through and villagers crowd around him to buy healing medicines. Nemorino believes that this 'miracle' man is perfect for his own case and wants to take advantage of the situation. Recalling to mind the story of Tristan and Isolde he is full of curiosity and asks the prodigious Doctor Dulcamara if he is in possession of the love potion mentioned in the old tale. Realizing how naive Nemorino is, the doctor sells him a bottle of Bordeaux wine in exchange for a sequin, leaving the young Nemorino without money. The doctor explains that twenty-four hours are needed for the potion to take effect (enough time for him to move on). The wine, however, soon begins to take effect and Nemorino becomes tipsy and more sure of himself. When Adina arrives, he acts indifferent and she becomes irritated and angry, so much so that she flirts with Sergeant Belcore and accepts his marriage proposal. The Sergeant suggests that the ceremony be performed within a day as an order has come for his prompt departure. Horrified, Nemorino begs Adina to wait one more day, but she ignores him and invites everyone to her wedding feast.
At Adina's farm, the wedding festivities are being prepared. Adina defers the signing of the wedding certificate until the evening when Nemorino is also present to watch. The latter arrives, in a desperate state. He would very much like to buy one more bottle of the love potion from Dulcamara but is without means of payment. Nemorino then proceeds to explain his financial plight to Belcore who immediately comes up with an idea: Nemorino has to enrol in the army and then he will receive a bonus awaiting all volunteers. Belcore leads the perplexed Nemorino off to sign up, enabling him to buy more love potion.
The young country girl Giannetta rushes around telling all the peasant girls in the square that Nemorino's uncle has just died leaving him an enormous fortune. All the young ladies of the village flock around Nemorino to try to win his favour. As he is unaware of his new financial situation, he believes the attention is due to the love potion. Dulcamara reveals to the on-looking Adiana, who is also oblivious to Nemorino's good fortune, that his popularity is due to the love potion he bought from him. He explains that to buy the potion the young farmer had to sell his freedom to Belcore. This information makes her even more angry. The Doctor consequently attempts to sell her a bottle of the potion but she declines saying that she will win him back through her own charms. Nemorino in the meantime observes a tear on Adina's cheek and he is now convinced of her love for him. In the meantime, Adina has bought back Nemorino's signed contract from Belcore, allowing Nemorino to enjoy his freedom once again. Nemorino acts disinterested in front of the lady he loves until she confesses that she has bought back the contract because she is in love with him. Nemorino is overcome with joy.
Sergeant Belcore arrives in the square to find the loved ones close to each other. Adina confirms that she is in fact betrothed to Nemorino. Belcore accepts the situation philosophically declaring that the world is full of women and he can have as many of them as he wants.
Dulcamara takes complete advantage of the situation and attributes Nemorino's success in love, as well as his inheritance, to the love potion. The villagers once again gather round him to purchase this 'magic' liquid which can possibly bring fortune to their own lives before the Doctor departs in his carriage.
L'Elisir d'amore: a revolutionary giocosa melodramma
In a letter addressed to his Maestro Giovanni Simone Mayr, a dominant and fundamental figure in his musical education, Gaetano Donizetti expressed his astonishment at the great and unexpected success of his opera the day after the première, on May 12th, 1832.
When he made his debut in the Teatro alla Scala with Chiara e Serafina in 1822, Donizetti's work had often been received with a mixture of indifference and wariness, except for two comedy titles, L'ajo nell'imbarazzo and Olivo e Pasquale; it was precisely for this reason that the warm welcome for l'Elisir d'amore granted by the city came as a great surprise to the composer. Before L'Elisir Donizetti's melodramas had never actually managed to fully satisfy the public's taste in Milan.
Rossini almost completely dominated the opera scene of that period, but in 1830 however Donizetti was awarded with the possibility of becoming recognized: he was commissioned to write a serious opera for the opening of the season at the Teatro Carcano, in competition with the Teatro alla Scala. When Donizetti triumphed on December 26th, 1830 with Anna Bolena, the sovereignty of Rossini began to stagger.
The success of Anna Bolena in fact proved to be the start of a successful future: finally even the Teatro alla Scala commissioned Donizetti to write another opera, Ugo, conte di Parigi, which was performed in 1832 but was not very successful with the public or the critics. Notwithstanding this setback, precisely in this period, a crucial meeting came about with the manager Alessandro Lanari who offered him the possibility of composing a comic opera for the same season for another theatre in Milan, the Teatro della Canobbiana. It was decided that the libretto would be written by Felice Romani, the most famous librettist of that time, with whom Donizetti had already collaborated for many of his previous operas (Chiara e Serafina, Alina regina di Golconda, Anna Bolena, Ugo, conte di Parigi).
They were requested to write the opera in a short space of time, but this didn't make either Donizetti or Romani withdraw from their task; the latter found it impossible to write a libretto from the beginning and decided to translate, nearly word for word, a text by the French writer Eugène Scribe entitled Le philtre and Donizetti, who was always used to composing with remarkable swiftness, completed the score maybe in a little more than the fifteen days traditionally attributed to the composition of the opera. This opera, which was entitled L'Elisir d'amore, was finished in a period of approximately six weeks, from the première of Ugo, conte di Parigi in March 13th, 1832 and May 1st when the opera rehearsals began. Even the censors, who normally gave their approval before the rehearsal period began, in this case, due to lack of time, had to attend the dress rehearsals to give their final consent.
The première of L'Elisir d'amore, which was staged on May 12th, 1832 at the Teatro della Canobbiana, was a great success. A little more than one year after the triumph of Anna Bolena, Donizetti didn't just satisfy the public's taste in Milan with L'Elisir d'amore, in a very short time he was able to conquer the audience with this opera in numerous theatres both in Italy and abroad. In the spring of 1834, L'Elisir d'amore was performed at the Teatro del Fondo in Naples and on September 27th, 1835 at the Teatro alla Scala. As was reported in the music press of the period, the opera became very fashionable very quickly, and it ended up being the most performed opera in the peninsula between 1832 and 1848. In 1834 the opera was staged also in Berlin with the title Der Liebestrank, subsequently in Vienna, in 1836 at the Lyceum Theatre in London, in 1838 in New York and in 1839 in Paris.
Being inspired by the seriocomic larmoyant genre of the French opéra-comique, with L'Elisir d'amore Donizetti was finally able to find true personal development with comedy through the introduction of the sentimental element, surpassing in this way the Rossinian model. The characters in L'Elisir appeared to be less psychologically stereotyped and seemed to acquire their own identity. What Donizetti is able to put into practice in this opera is, therefore, a true process of 'humanization' of characters from both a psychological as well as a musical point of view, and this is obvious in the character of the key figure, Nemorino, who is the emblem of a new type of tenor in the opéra-comique, the so called "tenore lirico-leggero" or "tenorino di grazia".