Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love)
© 2015, Joseph Rescigno
Along with Lucia di Lammermoor, Gaetano Donizetti’s greatest hits include three bittersweet comedies: Don Pasquale, La Fille du régiment, and L’elisir d’amore. Several of his dozens of other operas are well-known and respected and count as part of the standard repertory. But these four are genuine staples of the repertory that we see year-in and year-out.
Whether set in the original period (Basque country of the 1830s), or updated to the American Wild West or even later, L’elisir has always been effective and winning. The story is universal. A simple but good-hearted young man is in love with a pretty girl who takes him for granted. His sincerity and persistence finally win her over. Add to this an arrogant rival and a clever, snake oil-selling “doctor” who offers our hero the “elixir of love” and we have the ingredients of this bel canto gem. It also does not hurt that one of the most enduring arias of the Italian repertory, “Una furtiva lagrima,” is to be found in the show.
In addition to enchanting audiences worldwide for nearly 200 years, Elixir has always been a great favorite of tenors. Equally important is the part of “Doctor” Dulcamara, which requires a real master of acting with a nuanced command of Italian, since he is the con man whose scam is the source of the comedy. But Dulcamara’s role is more than acting. It is a leading role vocally. He has about as much to sing as the two lovers, and he has the longest aria in the opera. It is also to be noted that he needs to sustain a high average pitch—what is called tessitura in Italian. Tessitura can be deceptive. Listeners tend to notice high notes, which are certainly exciting. But the average that has to be maintained throughout a performance will be decisive in a singer’s ability—and willingness—to tackle a role. The soprano Adina, the third major player, and the baritone Belcore, in a supporting role, both have their vocal challenges. And they, too, have the burden of making believable two people who can seem like cardboard characters.
In conducting this work, a flexible and subtle approach is necessary. In addition, the orchestration sometimes seems over-heavy. For example, it must be remembered that the trombones used in Donizetti’s day were valve instruments, not the more powerful slide trombones that are nearly ubiquitous today. With more subtlety and delicacy coming from the pit, we can support the bittersweet and gentle qualities of the story.
In recent years, the score that I have been able to bring to productions is one that belonged to my uncle, Nicola Rescigno. This score, which he gave me before his death in 2008, is the same score he used to conduct the Metropolitan Opera telecast with Luciano Pavarotti in 1981. The connection is more than sentimental, however. Always of a scholarly bent, Nicola worked assiduously on his scores including incorporating the wisdom of his own elders like, in this instance, Tullio Serafin. These emendations include accounting for changes in instruments like that mentioned above, as well as correcting the kinds of copyist errors and omissions that all too frequently appear in music. It delights me to see all of this so beautifully prepared. (It also helps me use rehearsal time efficiently.)