L’elisir d’amore: when Dr. Donizetti distilled his philter
by Sebastiano Bazzichetto
TORONTO – It is often said that love is the mightiest of human feelings, the greatest of the powers that elevates and destroys our lives. Almost needless to remind Virgil’s adagio “amor vincit omnia”, everybody submits to love. And so, if love may sometimes be considered a plague, we also know that to each disease there is its remedy. But what if he or she is not in love, how could we summon such a powerful sentiment? Legends and storytellers teach us that there are ways to create and distill such an attribute. Perhaps, we need a doctor and his enchanted potions, as sorcerers used to do in Medieval times, or better, in the cycle of romans about knights, beautiful maidens, tournaments and spells, as it happened to queen Isolde and brave Tristan.
In 1832, Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti was able to merge fantastic and realistic elements to give life to a catchy dramma giocoso in a handful of weeks. The outcome was to be titled L’elisir d’amore (The elixir of love), destined to become one of the most beloved and sung operas of all times. It continues to be staged and performed all over the world. Donizetti’s work is a miraculous collection of arie, cavatine, duets that keeps the audience spellbound for close to two hours.
Based on Eugène Scribe’s Le Philtre (1831), the libretto tells the story of Nemorino, a young country boy, who falls in love with Adina. To win her heart, he purchases a liquor from a fraud doctor. It is interesting to notice the choice of the characters’ names: we encounter the quack Dottor Dulcamara (“Doctor Bittersweet”) who distills lotions and potions; Nemorino, the male protagonist, whose name might be derived from Latin “nemo” (“nobody”) as he is the least sought-after boy in the village, until he drinks the liqueur of love (and inherits his uncle’s fortune). There is Sergeant Belcore (“beautiful heart”), a preening, handsome, blonde soldier who, eventually, proves to have no heart and is all appearance and no substance. Last but not least, there is Adina who bears an originally Hebrew name that means “slender, delicate”, and is very appropriate for the light-hearted and at times careless young woman.
The new COC production reimagines the story in a rural Ontario village at the turn of the past century, on the eve of the First World War, focussing the action around a white, octagonal gazebo.
Last Sunday October the 15th , the cast was an interesting mix of talents: a real strong-suit in this production are the two male singers, Andrew Ahji (Nemorino) and Gordon Bintner (Belcore). Andrew Ahji proved to be a tender, timid, eventually self-confident country ice-cream boy, with a prodigious tenor voice and flawless Italian diction. Mr. Bintner turned out as a funny, bass-baritone fellow, with great power in his voice, despite being affected by a cold.
With her usual metallic timber on the high notes, Miss Simone Osborne (Adina) sang and acted as an affable country girl. Mr. Andrew Shore (dottor Dulcamara) gave proof of great dramatic and stage presence in his buffo role, paired with very little singing and inexistent Italian pronunciation.
The costumes and the set design, although simple and modernized, are charming and suit the opera, originally imagined in a little Basque village at the end of the 18th century.
Gaetano Donizetti composed this incredible score in less than two weeks, giving birth to one of the most bubbly and entertaining operas of all time, an earworm that you find yourself humming for hours and days after the performance. Nearly two hundred years ago, he proved to be the real alchemist, able to distill a potion of notes and arias to make everybody fall for his spellbinding “elixir of love”. [The Elixir of love runs at the Four Seasons Centre through November 4, 2017]