Mid-March to May 1, 1832

May 12, 1832 at the Teatro della Canobbiana in Milan

Donizetti began work on L’elisir d’amore shortly after the Milan premiere of his opera Ugo, conte di Parigi in March 1832. Heavily edited during dress rehearsals by the Milanese censors, Ugo had been an unmitigated flop. In fact, the cuts enforced by the censors were so grievous that the librettist, Felice Romani, completely disowned the libretto upon learning of them.1 Unsurprisingly, Donizetti was eager to move on to a new work, and it was not long before he was commissioned to write an opera buffa for the upcoming spring season at the Teatro Canobbianin. Donizetti once again enlisted the talents of Romani, who adapted the plot from Daniel Auber’s 1832 opera Le philtre.

It is not entirely clear when Donizetti actually began work on the two-act opera, but we do know that he continued to compose all the way until the start of dress rehearsals. On April 24th, Donizetti updated his father on the preparations for the premiere:

I am here, very much here, as in the coming week I will start rehearsals, even though I may not have finished (though I am lacking only a little). Romani was obliged to finish quickly, and now he is adjusting certain things for the stage. Yesterday was the first performance of the season, and the only tenor is passable, the donna has a pretty voice, and the buffo is a bit hammy.2

Unlike Ugo, Donizetti’s L’elisir was an instant success that only grew in popularity as performances spread throughout the country, eventually becoming the most frequently performed opera in Italy from 1838 to 1848.3

Programmatic Elements
The aria “Una furtiva lagrima” occurs during the evening hours of the second act, as Nemorino comes to the realization that his beloved Adina finally reciprocates his affection. Earlier that day, the dim-witted yet kind-hearted Nemorino purchased what he thought was an “elixir of love” from the traveling salesman Dulcamara, hoping that it would compel Adina to fall madly in love with him. Unbeknownst to Nemorino, however, the shrewd businessman Dulcamara had instead sold him an ordinary, everyday bottle of wine, explaining that the “elixir” needed twenty-four hours to go into effect (which, coincidentally, would be just enough time for Dulcamara to be safely on his way to the next town). But Nemorino doesn’t have twenty-four hours, since Adina has promised to marry the charming Count Belcore that very night. Penniless and distraught, Nemorino makes the difficult decision to enlist in Belcore’s army so that he can afford more elixir. He goes to Dulcamara and purchases more bottles in the hope that drinking them all will cause the elixir’s effects to immediately take effect.

That night, a rumor spreads amongst the women of the village that Nemorino’s rich uncle had just passed away, and that Nemorino had just inherited his entire fortune. As Nemorino drunkenly enters the town square, he finds himself swarmed by these same gossiping women. But Nemorino—not yet aware of his uncle’s passing—simply assumes this behavior to be the work of his magical elixir. When Adina and Dulcamara come across this scene, Adina is shocked to see all the attention that Nemorino is suddenly receiving from the village women. At the same time, Dulcamara is shocked to see his “elixir” actually working!

Nemorino, aware that Adina is looking on, continues flirting with the other village women in an effort to make her jealous. Adina asks Dulcamara what could possibly be the explanation for all of this, and Dulcamara proceeds to tell her about the love potion he had sold to Nemorino. He goes on to inform her that Nemorino had given his life to the army just so he could buy more elixir, and upon hearing of Nemorino’s devotion, Adina finally realizes her affection for him. She leaves to find Nemorino and stop him from joining Belcore’s men.

Alone, Nemorino plaintively sings “Una furtiva lagrima.” Though he must leave to join the army, he is reassured that the “furtive tear” he saw in Adina’s eye was proof that she finally loved him. After the aria he meets Adina, who informs Nemorino that she has bought his enlistment papers from Belcore. She confesses her love for him, and they kiss.

Una furtiva lagrima
negl’occhi suoi spuntò:
quelle festose giovani
invidiar sembrò:
che più cercando io vo’?
M’ama, sì, m’ama,
lo vedo, lo vedo.
Un solo istante i palpiti
del suo bel cor sentir!
I miei sospir confondere
per poco a’ suoi sospir!
Cielo, si può morir;
di più non chiedo,
si può morir d’amor
ella a spiegarsi.

A furtive tear
welled up in her eye...
those carefree girls
she seemed to envy...
why should I look any further?
She loves me, yes, she loves me.
I can see it, I can see it.
To feel for just one moment
the beating of her dear heart!
To blend my sighs
for a little with hers!
Heavens, I could die;
I ask for nothing more.
I could die of love
to declare her love.

1 William Ashbrook, Donizetti and his Operas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 71.

2 Ibid., 72.

3 William Ashbrook, "Elisir d’amore, L’," In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie, Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, (accessed January 12, 2012).