Gaetano Donizetti's rollicking bel canto comedy The Elixir of Love turns sweetly and completely upon the device of a love potion that is not a potion at all, but the commonest of intoxicants. Though the quack doctor Dulcamara cons the naÇve Nemorino with a cheap Bordeaux, New York City Opera's new production, directed by Sir Jonathan Miller, takes the conceit one step further — even the wine is phony. It's Nemorino's own imagination that is the powerful "potion" here.
Dulcamara is a polished purveyor of a patent medicinal, pitching a jug of something or other that "moves paralytics, is effective with apoplectics, asthmatics and asphitics, hysterics, diabetics; it cures earaches, scrofula and rickets ..." Bordeaux? We have only the doctor's word for that, too. What if the job is really done by Nemorino's heady power of suggestion, on overhearing a passionate love story read by Adina, the girl he adores from afar? That, propelled by his pubescent vitality, and fortified by his basic certainty that, even though he and Adina are divided by class, they are destined to love each other. But whatever extra oomph he can buy seems well worth whatever it costs, since Nemorino believes he has a formidable rival in the vain Sergeant Belcore.
Apart from love, death, sex and violence, little is more native to operatic dramaturgy than a plot-altering potion, to speed the characters toward assorted appointments with ... well ... love, death, sex and violence. We see concoctions for good, for evil, and sometimes just for fun; they may be medicinal, magical, or just functional, to move things along. They are nearly always pivotal to the drama — rendering everything different than it was before — not least of all because elixirs work on people from the inside. Variously altered senses receive familiar information in unfamiliar ways, turning order into chaos, making something out of nothing, and anything becomes possible. Though the range of recipes would fill an anarchist's cookbook, by far the most ancient and ubiquitous of mindbenders is alcohol, and it's no coincidence that classic aphrodisiacs consist of wine, mostly.
More than a lazy librettist's clever device, a good potion usually serves to compress the real-time magic of interpersonal relations, revealing pithy truths about the characters in its thrall. The trickster Puck of A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, plays havoc with hearts already a-romp in the fairy wood, anointing sleeping eyelids with nectar of a pansy-like flower called "love-in-idleness," purported to touch the mind, enamoring it of what it sees upon waking. And this is more or less the idea of the whole matter, for though Puck mistakes the eyelid itself for the seat of perception, each of his potions demonstrates how surely every reality is "in the eye of the beholder." Donizetti's Nemorino begins to believe in the efficacy of his "potion" only when all the village girls flock to him — just as, in a sort of double-blind placebo effect, they now see him as a dreamboat because of his sudden inheritance, unbeknownst to him.
In the original Tristan legend, Isolde's mother sends her daughter to her bridal bed with a little potion to ease the exchange. Isolde's underlying problem, though, is that she experiences an already easy exchange of profound love with someone other than her intended. No love potion necessary. Tristan and Isolde choose the young-and-restless way out — a suicide pact, complete with deathbed avowals. But the potion is not the death-draught they believe it to be — and here we arrive at the intersection of Wagner's tragedy and Donizetti's farce. We immediately see where Nemorino and Adina were going anyway. No love potion necessary.
L'elisir d'amore ("The Elixir of Love") fits neatly between past and future works similarly propelled by potions — some sillier still, and some which take themselves seriously indeed. In Act I, Adina, looking backward to sixth-century legend, cheekily recites the tale of the magic potion that sealed the fate of Tristan and Iseult. Even though when Elixir premiered in 1832, Richard Wagner had yet to begin his towering Tristan und Isolde (1865), few 21st-century listeners can hear Adina's reference without a passing thought of Wagner's so-called "Tristan Chord," the love potion, and the shattering Liebestod ("Love-Death") it begat.
Wagner was obviously quite serious, but contemporary critic Eduard Hanslick found his gravitas trivial: "A magic potion by which some simpleton suddenly becomes aware ... is a subject better suited to a farce." He was writing specifically of Wagner's G‹tterd‹mmerung, which would come later. But regardless of the insult to Wagner, this is too harsh a disdain for farce, which has its own valuable purpose, and no dearth of fans: Donizetti's Elixir was premiered just a year after Auber's enormously popular Le Philtre, an opera on the same story, from the same source.
All this was mischievously revisited by Benjamin Britten in Albert Herring (1947), an opera about the sexually ambiguous deflowering of another innocent bumpkin under the influence of demon rum — which Britten likens to Wagner's Liebestrank by quoting Tristan as young Sid spikes his friend Albert's lemonade. Britten accompanies Albert's resulting hiccups with the devastating coitus interruptus passage from Tristan's love duet. Fortunately Albert, like Nemorino, comes to a happier end than Tristan.
Librettist William S. Gilbert, in his pre-Sullivan days, based an early burlesque on Donizetti's Elixir by fitting new lyrics to existing tunes. He borrowed two from Elixir itself, and called the show Dulcamara, or The Little Duck and the Great Quack (1864).
There is no shortage of potent potables in the myths, legends, and folk tales to which librettists and composers have always turned for resonant source material. Monteverdi and Handel plumbed the canon from Homer and Ovid to Ariosto for allegories and archetypes, both potion-wielding and potion-transfigured.
An early comedic stock character even developed around the figure of the pharmacist, who could reproduce at least a sensation of transformation by combining things that grow in the garden. He shows up in Haydn's opera Lo speziale ("The Apothecary," 1768), and in Mozart's CosÐ fan tutte (1790) as the conspiratorial maid Despina impersonates an acolyte of "old Doktor Mesmer" for an audience as well acquainted with her magnetical shenanigans as with the poisons they are meant to reverse.
By the 19th century, the character of the quack doctor had left the stage and hit the road, with a booming business in phony elixirs in patented bottles, especially infamous in Britain and America. But German Romanticism brought the magic arts back to opera. Goethe's monumental play Faust (1808) would become the operatic Faust (1859) of Charles Gounod, in which the disillusioned old alchemist prepares a little something to end it all, but then gets a chance to try Mephistopheles' potion of youth and fabulousness, for better or for worse. And in Carl Maria von Weber's Oberon, the elfin king entrusts Puck with a magic cup that fills at will but bursts into flame upon the lips of a villain.
As we've observed, Wagner never eschewed a good magic draught. In Die Walk‹re, Sieglinde prepares a crucial sleeping potion for her husband Hunding — and one wonders what's in that mead she serves Siegmund, her unexpected houseguest, long-lost twin, and lover-to-be. In G‹tterd‹mmerung, Siegfried quaffs a magic brew which makes him forget his troth to Br‹nnhilde and become besotted with Gunther's sister Gutrune. (Then again, as the inimitable Anna Russell put it, "Gutrune is the only woman Siegfried has met who hasn't been his aunt.") Siegfried and Gunther then drink a sacred Blut-Bruderschafft, a blend of wine and their own blood. Later still, Gunther's evil half-brother, Hagen, introduces a leaf into Siegfried's drink whose sap makes the hero forget his forgetting.
Something like that happens in Richard Strauss's Die ‹gyptische Helena (1928), but with a happier outcome. Jealous husband Menelaus, setting out to murder his wife, is waylaid by a sorceress's potion of forgetfulness, followed by a potion of remembering — which, in tandem, allow him to accept his wife Helen (of Troy) as she is. In the famous Presentation of the Rose scene in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, just the heavenly scent of a drop of rose oil is enough to send Octavian and Sophie over the moon.
Of course, many of Shakespeare's plays derive from medieval history and legend, when potions and philters were widely known. They often figure importantly in Shakespeare's plots — including many of the plays later adapted into some 270 operas. Shakespeare seems to have had special knowledge of the botanicals used in these brews, as well as their particular effects, often referring to the family of plants called solanaceae, or "nightshades," used in ancient Greece as anesthetics — and hallucinogenic in larger doses. So we see liquors of henbane, wolf bane, thorn apple, bark of mandrake; in Macbeth, Shakespeare's trio of witches toils over boiling "root of hemlock digg'd i' th' dark", which in Verdi's version becomes, simply, "tu radica" ("your root"). Often where there is one potion, there is another — one for love, one for death — not necessarily in that order, and rather an alternative than an antidote. Think of unlucky Romeo, who shows up with a vial of poison for himself, having taken Juliet's anesthetized stillness for death.
Medical professionals have a field day with operatic pharmaceuticals. Internist Gunther Weitz, of the Medical University of Schleswig-Holstein, actually diagnoses the likely cause of Isolde's death as anticholinergic syndrome, caused by intoxication by solanaceae. He maps all the symptoms by the Tristan chord:
In Act I,
* "they are seized with trembling; they clutch convulsively at their hearts ... Tachycardia, palpitation.
* ... and raise their hands to their [flushed faces] Hyperthermia.
* Their eyes seek out one another ... Blurred vision.
* Tristan fails to recognize King Marke: '... Which King?'
* Isolde is confused: '... Where am I? Am I alive?' Disorientation.
* ... and falls upon his breast. Coma."
Act II, scene 3:
"'Oh, now we were dedicated to night! Spiteful day with ready envy could part us with his tricks ...' Pupillary dilatation, photophobia (may persist for several days)."
Act III, scene 3, the Liebestod:
"Isolde ... fixes her gaze with mounting ecstasy upon Tristan's body: 'How softly and gently he smiles, how sweetly his eyes open — can you see it, my friends, do you not see it ... Do I alone hear this melody, so wondrously and gently ...' Visual and auditory hallucinations."
Pharmacist Frank Scherff, of Klinikum Peine, finds that these symptoms — especially the couple's "clinically verifiable heightened sense of closeness to other people" — conform instead to the known effects of MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine). On the street they call it "ecstasy." Or "Love Potion #9." (Is there nothing new under the sun?).
But who needs a potion anyway? What makes Nemorino's quandary so affecting, and worthy of the poignant melodies Donizetti put in his mouth, is that he has it in him all the time. And deep down he knows this. Only for now does he find his courage in Dulcamara's bottle — and if Jonathan Miller has it right, that's all there ever was in it.
Kathleen Watt writes frequently on the performing arts.