Article by Natalie Wheen

Even if people have never heard of L’elisir d’amore – never mind seeing it – they know the tune ‘Una furtiva lagrima’; loved the world over as a top tenor weepy, a perfect vehicle for gulps and sobs, its lugubrious bassoon partner beautifully emphasising a damp melancholy. Take it out of context, this is some incurable miserable young man singing, going on (as they do) about dying and wanting nothing more than dying of love.

But take it back into the opera and it’s climax to frothy games of how to get the girl. Nemorino (soppy tenor) has spotted a chink in Adina’s (pert soprano) armour: surprised by his sudden popularity with all the other girls in the village, she begins to feel the stirrings of her own fondness for him… a secret tear welled up in her eye as she envied the happy girls flirting with him.

It’s a beautifully judged dig at the traditional sentimental pause, which, when the music runs on into the next business (after the usual pause for applause) finds Nemorino actually pretending indifference to Adina – until finally he gets her to say she loves him. Whereupon the whole opera spins off into a giddy waltz and immense ecstasy – with even the possibility of insanity, it’s so dizzy – and everyone goes home in a good mood.

L’elisir d’amore is the story of the transformation of a buffoon, almost the village idiot he’s so naïve, into a young man with a sense of his own identity and even self determination – thanks to his innocent belief in chemical assistance. At the start of proceedings, Adina (clearly a cut above the rest of the rustics) is reading about Tristan and Isolde’s love potion – which he finds hilariously ridiculous, while Nemorino is absolutely certain it’s the only way to win her over to him. There’s a slight hitch to getting Adina’s interest because of the successful attentions of bustling Sergeant Belcore, who has all the leeriness of the professional charmer on the look-out for a good catch – but help is at hand with the arrival of Doctor Dulcamara. He’s a quack in the grandest manner, with potions to cure every ailment – and of course is ready to oblige Neromino with Isolde’s love remedy – quickly transformed from a bottle of Bordeaux.

The drunker he gets, Nemorino gets bolder. Meanwhile the village girls find out that his rich uncle has conveniently died and left him all his loot, and suddenly he becomes a catch. Adina, finally, has her eyes opened by the competition.

It’s a simple, silly story, which no-one can possible take seriously these days, it’s so preposterous: and yet it never fails. There’s something about the good humour, the sensitivity, the charm of it all, with the bonus of an uncomplicated plot, deft characterisation and music that is pure sunlight on the soul.

Donizetti called L’elisir a comic opera rather than opera buffa, a light-hearted story rather than one with the complexities of Mozart – these days perhaps we should invent a new category of ‘sweet’ opera for it, since there’s hardly a vicious action in its two and a half hours, only Adina’s petulant need to humiliate Nemorino (for daring to woo her) at the official proceedings of her engagements to Sergeant Belcore. Even her merriment at the story of Tristan and Isolde has to be taken with a pre-Wagner sensibility; given that L’elisir dates from more than thirty years before the Tristan epidemic.

It’s a world away from parody, satire, even buffoonery – perfect theatrical froth from a man who was the toast of operatic Europe after his 1830 success with Anna Bolena. When L’elisir opened in Milan in May 1832, Donizetti had already written thirty-six operas, he was working with an elegant text by Felice Romani who also certainly knew his business (his final tally of libretti was well over a hundred) and the piece took less than a month to write. The music just bubbles – and, I suppose, giggles along.

And not many composers have that gift: my personal list includes Haydn, Mozart, Rossini, Offenbach, Poulenc and of course Verdi with the magical Falstaff. It all depends of course on your sense of humour: Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi brings on heartburn after all the belly laughs, I’ve never found a smile in Mastersingers – and Albert Herring, for all its close connections with L’elisir – not least the rustic revels and village booby getting drunk – has something suspiciously sadistic in the undergrowth which goes beyond the satire on middle class convention.

The problem is that comedy in music makes huge demands on the actors: Donizetti was deeply worried at the first cast for L’Elisir: “We have a German prima donna, a tenor who stammers, a buffo with the voice of a goat and a French basso who isn’t worth much” he wrote, but they obviously did the business successfully to make L’Elisir a hit. I’m trying to think of great voices which had or have it in them to laugh as well as emote: Gobbi as Falstaff, Berganza in the Rossinis, Stratas as a perfectly wicked Susanna, Söderström, Schwarzkopf sparkling in operetta and, way back in history, Luisa Tetrazzini was reported to have a tremendous sense of fun. Meanwhile, we now have Cecilia Bartoli – who promises fabulous, sparking duetting to come with Bryn Terfel if their recent CD is anything to go by.

But how the critics thundered when Monserrat Caballé had her fun and games in Rossini’s Viaggio a Reims at Covent Garden, carefully rehearsed and plotted as it was (apart from the wicked ad-lib asides to the audience), a diva casting apples at the conductor was not reckoned compatible with one who shines in ‘Casta Diva’. As the American writer Ethan Mordden writes in his wicked book ‘Demented’, referring to the questionable German soprano Lotte Heinotz’ advice to would-be prima donnas – the public loves staircase entrances, oaths of vengeance and blood-curdling bad behaviour on stage. Comedy is not for Divas.

I suspect that comedy, but its very nature, is critically considered a lower form of artistic life – it’s very hard to experience what is held to be the civilising qualities of pity and terror when you’re laughing and having a good time. By the same token, it’s naturally beneath contempt to take a great classic myth such as, for example, that of Orpheus and giggle it up: but despite that, low art triumphs – for while the critics soured, Offenbach’s reputation soared, his public relishing the satire, parody and caricature of the current critical high ground. If Bellini had known about it, the tantrums would have been cataclysmic, but Meyerbeer, after a certain frost, never missed a show.

There is, let’s face it, something irresistible about being in the middle of a great crowd-galvanising event, when the whole group is concentrated, gripped by the events before them – which is what theatre is supposed to be about. Laughter is so much less embarrassing to be engulfed by than tears – and of course, there’s nothing so infectious: never have I laughed so much and so long as during David Freeman’s Opera Factory Così at the QEH which had the audience near incontinent with some silly business with Despina and the girls, deckchairs and bathing suits. It was the longest of pauses, for just as we reached some sort of composure, someone snorted and set the whole hall off again. And we were then helpless in the face of the black twists Freeman then put into the rest of the story. It was one of those rare satisfying evenings of good music theatre.

The trouble is that all too often, the highest art, the most serious performances are the ones that give the best – if unwitting – comedy. My most favourite Don Giovanni of all time happened in a reputable American house where the stage hands were clearly unaccustomed to the piece and began removing bits of the set and then putting them back on further instructions during one of Don Ottavio’s interminable bleatings. While at Covent Garden, Mitridate, not known to be a bundle of fun, scored an astonishing success (if you judge success by audience reaction) when the on-stage buzzard fell off its perch in boredom and stole the show, hanging upside down. It was joyous to see the ROH audience so unusually engaged by a piece of work in the theatre as they called for the RSPCA, RNIB, and whoever else it might concern, including Jeremy Isaacs, to come to the rescue.

Does this explain why the English speaking audience so adores its traditional Gilbert and Sullivan with all its amateur pantomime acting – the row of policemen bending their knees on the off beats in the bar? We love playing the fool, sending up the serious, poling fun and parodying a story, especially if it’s popular. Donizetti, as a composer particularly dear to the bosom of London – Queen Victoria went to see La Fille du Regiment three times – was honoured with a number of spoofs, not least by W.S. Gilbert’s La Vivandière. (L’Elisir d’amore got the Gilbert treatment as Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack).

The downside, is the rather village hall foundation of too many British singers’ comedy style – come to think of it, Britten’s own recording of Albert Herring actually sounds deliberately village hall and the Ham Dram society. While poking fun has given us the carry on camping legacy of production: much though I’ve laughed with John Copley’s visual jokes, it can’t be good if one can only remember the business but not the opera. When did he use a caryatid’s nipples as a light switch? Was it Orpheus in the Underground given the Greek temple – or was it Les Mamelles de Tiresias, given that caryatids hold up the Erechtheion?

It was Hollywood that really gave us the best fun at the expense of this dotty art form; the Marx Brothers packed in all the possibilities, after all, their Night at the opera was the only night that most people would ever see. So why not sail a battle ship into Il Trovatore? But was there ever a better guide to what it’s all about Bugs Bunny? “What’s opera Doc?” What indeed!

Going back to Donizetti (or Rossini or Mozart – and certainly for Verdi’s Falstaff), there’s enough business in the music to carry the humour without larding it on. Donizetti was a theatre animal through and through and after writing so many different kinds of operas had a pretty shrewd idea of what was likely to work in performance. He wrote several of his own libretti, even having considerable disagreements with his co-author on Don Pasquale, Giovanni Ruffini, about the period of the production. Ruffini wanted it set in the eighteenth century as he saw the piece simply as a buffo comedy, Donizetti knew it should be contemporary – ‘borghese moderna’ – since it was tilting at contemporary manners and outdated ideas of parental control. So when Don Pasquale appears in his finery to impress his prospective new bride, Malatesta’s ‘sister’ straight out of a convent, Donizetti didn’t want him peruked and powdered, bursting out of ancient satin knee breeches as he so often does merely as a figure of fun. He’s a man out of time, about to make a terrible fool of himself, and at the end, we should have sympathy for him.

Likewise Dulcamara – on the surface, a modern urban schemer, preying on country innocence. The music tells us quite clearly first of all, what quack he is, but what promises he offers – but we’re all instantly mesmerised by his encyclopaedic remedies – everything from mice and bugs, apoplexia, scrofula, to impotent old grandfathers. When Nemorino comes to consult him for the famous elixir, Dulcamara oozes a comforting bedside manner, but, by the time he understands that Adina is actually in love with Nemorino and could do with a bottle of the same, he’s met his match – Adina, as a sparring partner has her own special magic – and he has to give way in admiration of her flirty pretty face and eyes.

At any point, the orchestra paints the picture: delicate woodwind ensembles in the prelude set up a rustic simplicity, leading into a jolly rum-ti-tum for bucolic harvesters. Nemorino is a soppy date from his very first moonings over Adina (‘How beautiful she is’) as he watches her laughing away while reading the story of Tristan; he’s a soppy date, and yet Donizetti shows his affection for him in the music. While Belcore and his troop of soldiers arrive with a swagger of side-drum and the kind of comic march that Sullivan studied well – the swagger leaches into his serenade ‘I’m gallant and a sergeant – and the girls can’t resist a uniform’; whenever Nemorino states his case, the orchestra sweetens sympathetically and gradually traps us in its embraces – so that we’re all soon rooting for this single-minded young man and his determination of misguided endeavours to get his girl.

There are no Mozartian to-ings and fro-ings, no fun and games, no dressing up, no pranks: but L’Elisir d’amore opens the door on a kind of sweet fun that so beautifully counterpoints all that lugubrious romanticism, stuffed with horror and irrationality that Donizetti also knew to do so well. It’s a simple story that all happens very quickly, neatly and logically so that by the end, when everything’s sorted out as it should be, it’s easy to enjoy the joy all round – just as we can also relish Lucia (di Lammermoor) going seriously off her head.

With La fille du Regiment, written for Paris in 1840, the action if even tighter; with Don Pasquale of 1843 (also for Paris), the comic style is as heady as champagne, spinning a story of deceiving a miserly old man into a supposed marriage with a mix of a girl who turns out to be a harridan, until he relents over his opposition to his nephew’s marriage – to, of course, the very same mix.

It’s a score of surprises, ensembles where the music quite clearly defines characterisation, orchestration providing an emotional subtext as well as fuelling the action and, while there’s still a place for quickfire recitative when the story line needs clear telling, the music also seamlessly flows from one situation into another.

The music also looks forward to Verdi – it’s often been remarked that no-one wrote a decent comic opera Donizetti until Falstaff. Ernesto could almost be Fenton’s father from his atmospheric on-stage serenade, accompanied by guitar and tambourine – while bubbling busy music for servants flying about, modernisinig the house at their new mistress’s command also suggests to me the party music in La Traviata.

But all that is beside the point. We begin at the beginning. Take yourself back to an innocent time of 1832, to read a romantic novel about the love between Tristan and Isolde, and how their romance blossomed thanks to a fabulous love potion…