Romantic rivalries

Article by Andrew Porter

Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore had its first performance at the Teatro alla Canobbiana, Milan, in 1832. (The Canobbiana was the sister-theatre to La Scala; designed by the same architect, Giuseppe Piermarini, it seated about 2,000.) The opera was composed in haste, to plug a gap when another composer failed to fulfil his commission, and the impresario turned to Donizetti. And the result was the most successful and delightful comedy to appear on the Italian lyric stage since Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia, in 1816. The Scala/Canobbiana 19th-century annals show that only Il barbiere, Bellini’s Norma, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and Rossini’s Mosè were operas more frequently performed. (The respective totals are 318, 243, 210, 207, and 179.)

According to Donizetti’s early (if not always quite accurate) biographers Alborghetti and Galli, the Canobbiana manager’s first suggestion was that perhaps the composer could revamp some earlier piece. Donizetti was scornful: “Are you joking? I’m not in the habit of touching up either my own works or anyone else’s. Rather, let’s see whether I haven’t the spirit to produce a brand-new opera for you in two weeks. Just send Romani to me.” And to Romani he said: “I must have a new opera ready in a fortnight, so I’ll allow you one week to prepare the libretto.” Felice Romani was the leading librettist of the day. Three of those five-most-popular pieces just mentioned – Norma, Lucrezia, and L’elisir – have texts by him. For Rossini he’d written three librettos, including Il turco in Italia. After revising the libretto of Bellini’s early Bianca e Fernando, he wrote the texts for seven of the eight Bellini operas that followed. And L’elisir was the fourth of his eight collaborations with Donizetti.

Romani had recourse to an existing model. The plot of L’elisir d’amore is not original; it’s a reworking of Le philtre, Eugène Scribe’s libretto for Daniel Auber’s very successful comedy that had appeared at the Paris Opéra the year before. Perhaps it was suggested by the Canobbiana baritone Henri-Bernard Dabadie (Rossini’s first William Tell, in 1829), who’d arrived in Milan fresh from a Paris triumph as the dashing Sergeant Joli-Cœur of Auber’s opera and was now due to sing the corresponding role in Donizetti’s. Romani, during the busy week allowed him, sometimes resorted to near-translation of Scribe. Compare, for example, in Nemorino’s first aria:

Qu’elle est jolie…                                                                              Quanto è bella…

Elle sait lire…                                                                                      Essa legge…

Moi, je ne suis qu’un ignorant!                                                   Io son sempre un idiota!


or in the Adina/Dulcamara duet:

Je suis riche, vous êtes belle,                                                        Io son sempre un idiota!

J’ai des écus, vous des appas…                                                    Io ho ducati, e vezze hai tu…

Quel honneur! Un sénateur                                                          Qual onore! Un senatore

D’amour venir me supplier!                                                          Me d’amore supplicar!


Indeed, when reading either Auber’s or Donizetti’s libretto in English translation, it’s sometimes hard to know which of the two it is. But Romani did make some alterations and additions that are very important: they change the whole tone of the piece. Le philtre is purely comic. At the end of the first scene, to put an end to Guillaume’s tiresome pleading, Auber’s Térézine sings a sprightly air, ‘La coquetterie fait mon seul bonheur’. Romani replaced this with a duet of tender sentiment: two balanced stanzas of exquisite lyric poetry, Adina’s ‘Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera…’ answered by Nemorino’s ‘Chiedi al rio gemente…’. She invokes the wayward breeze, playing on now the lily, now the rose, without ever settling; and he likens the love he feels for her to the stream that flows constantly towards its goal. The inspiration, I have no doubt, was the similarly balanced duet in Bellini’s La sonnambula, Elvino’s ‘Son geloso del zefiro errante’ answered by Amina’s ‘Son, mio bene, del zefiro amante’.

Between Bellini and Donizetti there was a recurrent rivalry, generous on Donizetti’s part, less amiable on Bellini’s. William Ashbrook in his Donizetti study contrasts Bellini’s “neurasthenic malice” and “paranoid” comments with Donizetti’s “on the whole generous and supportive attitude toward his fellow operatic composers”; Philip Gossett writes of “Bellini’s vituperative and egotistical letters, filled with jealousy”. The “rivalry” had its beginnings when Bellini’s revised Bianca and Donizetti’s new Alina were performed in Genoa, in 1828. It came to the fore in 1830, when a group of Milanese noblemen hired the Teatro Carcano for an opera season of unusual distinction and commissioned new works from both Donizetti and Bellini – Romani to be the librettist, and the great Giuditta Pasta and Giovanni Battista Rubini the leading soprano and tenor, of both.

Donizetti’s Anna Bolena was so successful that Bellini, fearing competition, abandoned the opera seria, Hernani, that he’d embarked on, and won quite a different sort of triumph, in pastoral vein, with his opera semiseria, La sonnambula (for which Romani elaborated a ballet scenario by Scribe). The next year, at La Scala, Bellini’s Norma trumped Donizetti’s Ugo, conte di Parigi, achieving 34 performances, while Ugo had only eight. Bellini gloated. Both operas again had Romani librettos, and identical casts, headed by Pasta, Giulia Grisi, Domenico Donzelli, and Vincenzo Negrini. Impresarios evidently fostered the competition. In 1834 Rossini, retired as a composer, now artistic head of Paris’s Théâtre-Italien, commissioned for 1835 new operas from both composers to be sung by the same cast: Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini, and Lablache. Bellini’s Puritani di Scozia (the first, odd choice of title; his Puritans get no further north than Plymouth) was more highly acclaimed than Donizetti’s Marino Faliero. When the Paris cast then brought both works to Her Majesty’s, Henry Chorley wrote:

The production of these two new operas was the event of the season. On such occasions there is always a success and a failure – the public will not endure two favourites. In spite of the grandeur of Lablache [and the other merits that Chorley lists], Marino Faliero languished. On the other hand, from first to last note, I puritani was found enchanting.

For the Naples season later that year, a new Donizetti opera and Bellini’s reworking for Maria Malibran of I puritani were planned, but a cholera outbreak delayed the delivery of Bellini’s score. He died, aged 33, on 23 September 1833. Three days later Naples heard the premiere of Donizetti’s Scottish opera, his “answer” to I puritani. The hugely successful Lucia di Lammermoor became the only bel canto opera seria to withstand all changes of operatic fashion; it has remained in the international repertory for nearly two centuries now. When the news of Bellini’s death reached Naples, Donizetti composed a Lamento per la morte di Bellini and embarked on a Requiem Mass: “I have much work in hand, but an affirmation of my friendship for Bellini takes precedence over everything else.”

Back to L’elisir, which can in some ways be considered Donizetti’s (and Romani’s) appreciative response to La sonnambula. The sales-patter of Scribe’s Fontanarose and that of Romani’s Dulcamara follow identical lines (though claret replaces the French charlatan’s delicious Lacryma Christi as the elixir). Next, Romani adds the Nemorino/Dulcamara duet ‘Obbligato, ah! sì, obbligato!’. And at the close of the act, Nemorino’s ‘Adina, credimi’ (marked con passione) has no parallel in Le philtre; again we leave Auber’s and Scribe’s world of comedy for one of deep and true feeling. Romani’s widow, Emilia Branca, tells us in her memoirs that for the so-called barcarolle in Act 2 (which is actually a 2/4 andantino) Donizetti had recourse to an earlier composition; and also for ‘Una furtiva lagrima’, an aria that was inserted, she says, only at Donizetti’s insistence, against Romani’s wishes, and one that simply “spoils” the opera. So much for what became its hit-number! In the words of Philip Gossett, a scholarly, not a gushy, writer: “When Nemorino pours out his soul in ‘Una furtiva lagrima’, few eyes in the theatre can remain dry.”

L’elisir, then, is more than a brilliant, brittle comedy or what Romani in a self-deprecatory preface described as “a mere jest, offered as such to the gentle readers”. Although, heaven knows, one would not wish to go searching for ponderous significances, it is indeed “la storia di Tristano” transferred to a rustic milieu. The Liebestrank did not cause Tristan and Isolde to fall in love; it brought to the surface their acknowledgment of the love that was already there. So the elisir d’amore, cheap claret though it be (and aided, to be sure, by the fortune Nemorino inherits from his uncle) works effectively, by giving Nemorino confidence, causing him to shed the self-pity and the hangdog approach that had made his protestations seem, to Adina, so tiresome. These are real, recognizable people; this is human nature.

L’elisir remained in the repertory through the 19th century. Caruso sang Nemorino at La Scala in 1901 (conducted by Toscanini), at Covent Garden in 1902, and at the Metropolitan Opera from 1903 to 1920. But then Donizetti fell from favour. Back in 1894, Bernard Shaw had already written: “The moment you hear Pagliacci, you feel that it is all up with L’elisir”. And Gerald Abraham declared in his textbook A Hundred Years of Music, first published in 1938 and influential for decades thereafter:

To the contemporary opera-lover the period [1830- 40] must have seemed a prolific one, teeming with new, live works – works contemporary in every sense, in some cases even alarmingly revolutionary. Today the masterpieces of the period have almost without exception vanished from the repertoire; at best one can hear nothing more than occasional concert excerpts from Donizetti or Meyerbeer or a sporadic half-dead “revival” for the benefit of some star singer.

That makes strange reading in today’s today! – but it was received opinion in my schooldays. Then in 1948 Maria Callas sang Norma, the first of her 84 performances of the role; the Puritani Elvira the next year; Lucia in 1952; Amina in 1955; Anna Bolena in 1957. And it became respectable once more – on campuses, in critical columns, in scholarly volumes, and above all in the world’s opera houses – to consider Donizetti and Bellini as composers who could be “taken seriously”. Other singers embraced the new repertory (to name just four sopranos, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, June Anderson), and they continue to do so. Callas was the prime force behind the revival, but – to quote Gossett again, on her Anna Bolena: “Behind her interpretation stood one of Donizetti’s greatest achievements… Maria Callas may have been the first singer in a century to reveal the character of Anna Bolena on the stage, but Donizetti’s music was there all along, waiting.”

Callas, although she sang with sparkle as Rosina in Rossini’s Barbiere and Fiorilla in his Turco in Italia, and poignantly as Bellini’s Amina in La sonnambula, never tackled Adina in L’elisir. I first encountered L’elisir in 1950, when the visiting Scala company brought it to Covent Garden, and I wrote about it with enthusiasm (whereas our senior critic, Ernest Newman, ended his Sunday Times review: “Oh to be in Milan/Now the Scala’s here”). The Adina was Margherita Carosio. She sang it again at the Stoll Theatre in 1955, where two years later a young Renata Scotto chose it for her London debut. The Royal Opera mounted its own production in 1975 (director John Copley), and played it for more than two decades with some excellent casts – Carreras, Bergonzi, Pavarotti and Alfredo Kraus among the Nemorinos, Geraint Evans a star Dulcamara. It mounted a new production, shared with the Paris Opéra, in 2007.

At Glyndebourne in 1961, Franco Zeffirelli staged L’elisir in reproductions of Alessandro Sanquirico’s original 1832 scenery. This was at the peak of opera’s riesumazione period: aiming at “period authenticity” in every aspect, not just the musical text and its execution but also the staging. At Spoleto in 1959, Luchino Visconti had revived Donizetti’s Duca d’Alba in the very sets used for its premiere; they had been gathering dust in a Roman scenic warehouse. But fashions change. Adina kept a beach hotel in Opera North’s 2000 staging of L’elisir, and Dr Dulcamara arrived by balloon. In 1984, for Scottish Opera, he’d arrived in a Fiat Topolino. In 1998, ENO set the opera in the municipal hall, packed with bureaucrats, of a small totalitarian state.

I’ve no idea what Pia Furtado and her designer Leslie Travers have in mind for the Holland Park presentation. But I always look forward to L’elisir d’amore, a score in which high spirits, wit and tender sentiment are held in perfect balance. Never was Donizetti’s music more deft, more sparkling, or more beautiful.

Andrew Porter was the music critic of the Financial Times from 1953 to 1972 and of The New Yorker from 1972 to 1992. In 1969 he discovered and reconstructed the “lost” scenes of Don Carlos, torn from Verdi’s score when the Paris Opéra found the work too long. He wrote the librettos for John Eaton’s The Tempest (1982), Bright Sheng’s The Song of Majnun (1992), and Roger Sessions’s unfinished The Emperor’s New Clothes; and has translated 40 operas for performance in English