The Brew That Is True

Classic Arts Features   The Brew That Is True
Vessels and pestles, palaces and chalices: potions have a key place in opera. As L'elisir d'amore returns to the Metropolitan Opera on May 13, Andrew Porter takes a drink.

Potions can arouse passions. One has only to survey the daily headlines to realize this. And in opera as well as in real life, potions of various kinds‹behavior-altering substances imbibed‹have an important part to play. Whether the liquid that is administered is Lacrima Christi (as in Auber's Le Philtre), Bordeaux (as in Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore), rum (in Britten's Albert Herring), or one of Wagner's more intricate drafts, it releases inhibitions in the drinker.

Critic Eduard Hanslick insisted, in severe but thoughtful reviews of Götterdämmerung and Tristan und Isolde, that a potion "is a subject better suited to a farce." Perhaps he would have approved more unreservedly of Le Philtre, L'Elisir, and Albert Herring, all comic operas whose plots revolve around potions. Auber's Le Philtre premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1831. It was such a hit that it was taken up without delay in Brussels and Berlin, London and New York, and it remained on the Opéra's boards for 30 years. The curtain rises on the heroine reading, and soon reading aloud:

Queen Isolda, of the white hands,
Showed herself resistant to love,
And Tristan was dying for her,
Yet did not complain of her indifference.
Suddenly, the story tells us,
There appeared a famous magician
Who gave him a magic philter to drink:
They called it the draft of love.
Philter whose secret power
Inspired eternal love!
Why must it be that the recipe
Is lost, forever!

Well, you know what happens next, from an opera more famous than Le Philtre. Before a year had passed after the premiere of Auber's opera, Felice Romani had prepared an Italian version of its libretto for composer Gaetano Donizetti, and their opera, L'Elisir d'Amore, had opened in Milan. Soon their treatment of the tale was heard all over the world, and in time displaced Auber's.

L'Elisir's anti-hero, Nemorino, calls the potion he drinks "la bevanda amorosa della regina Isotta" (he has got the story a bit muddled). It may be no more than wine, but it works; with an operatic potion, it is sometimes not so much what exactly it is that matters, but what the drinker thinks it is. If Brangäne had given Wagner's Tristan and Isolde some harmless syrup to drink rather than the liebestrank, the result would probably have been the same. For they believe that they have drained the cup of Death, and in what they take to be their final moments confess their love for one another without reservation.

Nemorino's potion doesn't work in quite that way. Colored water would not have had the same effect. The "elixir" for which he pays his last penny and then, to get a refill, mortgages his future, is wine; and it is wine (mingled, of course, with the belief that he will soon be irresistible) that gives Nemorino confidence and enables him to shed the hangdog self-pity that had made his earlier protestations tiresome to the sprightly Adina. Wine helps to inspire the recklessness and the pretense of indifference that catch her interest and (when she learns that he has joined the army to pay for the elixir) touch her heart. (That Nemorino's rich uncle has died and left him a wealthy man, causing all the village maidens to flock around him, is a charming little extra turn in the plot, a happy coincidence.) No wonder the quack Doctor Dulcamara can end the opera with the brisk sale of the "gran liquore" whose efficacy has been so strikingly demonstrated.

Romani introduced his libretto as a scherzo, a jest. One doesn't want to get too solemn about it, and yet, like most good comedies, it is based on human behavior affectionately and truthfully observed. It is moving as well as merry. And it is perhaps worth noting that the opera's three most touching numbers‹the lyrical duet "Chiedi all'aure lusinghieri," Nemorino's plea "Adina, credimi" in the first act finale, and the famous "Una furtiva lagrima"‹were Romani-Donizetti additions to the Scribe-Auber original.

It is an interesting and little-known fact that one of William S. Gilbert's early romantic essays was a burlesque based on L'Elisir and entitled Dulcamara, or The Little Duck and the Great Quack (1864). (The lyrics were written to fit existing tunes; two were from L'Elisir itself, and another was "When Johnny Comes Marching Home.") And one of Gilbert's first collaborations with Sir Arthur Sullivan was The Sorcerer (1877), whose plot also turns on a love potion. Here it is administered to a whole village at a tea party, with results so incongruous and unsuitable that‹unexpected ending to a blithe operetta‹the Sorcerer, Mr. John Wellington Wells, agrees to commit suicide so that the spell may be undone. While everyone else prepares for another tea party at which the refreshments will not be hazardous ("Now for the rollicking bun, Now for muffins and toast"), Mr. Wells "sinks through a trap, amid red fire."

By the time The Sorcerer was premiered, two operas involving far more serious consequences of potions had been composed: Wagner's Tristan und lsolde (published in 1860, first performed in 1865) and Götterdämmerung (first performed in 1876). The Tristan draft came from the well-stocked medicine chest that Isolde's mother had provided for her daughter when she sailed for her wedding. This cache contained "magic mighty potions: balsam for pain and wounds, antidotes for evil poisons" and also the Love Draft and the Death Draft. Again, the actual ingredients of the Love Draft are probably irrelevant. In Act III, Tristan gives us a full "allegorical" prescription for the "fearsome drink": "From father's grief and mother's woe, from lovers' tears past and present, from laughter and weeping, rapture and pain." Few people besides Hanslick have had much trouble accepting the role that this potion plays in Tristan, but the Götterdämmerung potion and its antidote have proved a shade more irksome. Here is Hanslick again: "He who gets around his hero's sensibilities in a physical manner by recourse to potions may be a good chemist but he is a bad poet…. A magic potion by which some simpleton suddenly becomes aware of all the stupidities he has committed in his state of enchantment (or intoxication) is a subject better suited to a farce. In tragedy, where moral will must dominate, it becomes an absurdity."

No need to agree; but there is something odd about the potion that Gutrune, at Hagen's prompting, slips to Siegfried. This is a very special potion of unusually specific effect: it does not blot out memory of the past except insofar as meetings with women are concerned. Siegfried's third-act narration confirms this: still under the influence of the potion, he gives a perfectly lucid account of his adventurous career but only up to the point when he killed Mime. Only after Hagen has slipped him the antidote, a memory draft, does he‹to his horror‹recall his quest for and winning of Brünnhilde.

A later, and lighter, gloss on the power of potions is provided by Benjamin Britten's whimsical Albert Herring. Like the elixir that Doctor Dulcamara sold to Nemorino, the drink in Britten's opera has no inherently magical powers but nevertheless works efficiently. Sid adds rum to his friend Albert's lemonade: "Just loosen him up, and make him feel bright." It does that and more. (Britten was not merely making an easy joke when he introduced the cordial with the "Tristan chord.") It gives Albert the determination to cut the apron strings, to assert himself, to defy his loving but stifling and bullying Mum.

Albert Herring has been called a happy counterpart to the bright verso of Britten's brooding Peter Grimes; an allegory of coming out; a rite of passage. In the story by Guy de Maupassant on which Britten based his opera, the innocent hero is ruined by his coronation as May King and its consequences: he goes off to Paris for a week's debauch, spends all his prize money and returns home to become a hopeless drunkard who dies in a fit of delirium. But in Britten's version, Albert pedals off on his stolen bike to a little English country town with more limited possibilities for sin, spends only £3 of his £25 prize, and returns "saved." He has been shy, bullied, and something of a nerd; he returns confident, at ease with himself and with life, quite steady to stand up both to Mum and Lady Billows. The pressures on Albert had been much like those faced by far more tragic figures, such as Janácek's Káta Kabanová, and they might have destroyed him as they did her. He was lucky. Salvation can flow from the most unlikely sources. Like Nemorino, Albert owed his to a "gran liquore."

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