Accessible Arias: ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from L'elisir d'amore
A look at one of Donizetti's most memorable arias.
Donizetti’s timeless opera L’elisir d’amore focuses on an Italian bumpkin called Nemorino (played in this revival by Roberto Alagna), who has fallen in love with a landowner, Adina. She however, couldn’t care less; she’s far too superior to reciprocate the affections of a lowly peasant.
But after hearing Adina read the story of Tristan and Isolde to some enrapt harvest workers, Nemorino turns to a love potion, peddled by the travelling Dr Dulcamara. Little realizing that the brew he’s provided with is simply a bottle of cheap Bordeaux, Nemorino is disappointed when Adina presses on with plans to marry the pompous Sergeant Belcore. Things are not looking good for our likely lad.
At the wedding, Nemorino arrives late to find Adina annoyed that he isn’t there. Depressed and desperate to get money to buy more of the elixir, Nemorino has enlisted in the army. The other girls in the village start to flirt with him, but only because they’ve heard that a wealthy uncle has left him a pot of cash. Adina is upset by this flirtatious display and, witnessing her upset, Nemorino sings the aria ‘Una furtiva lagrima’.
In an opera about fake potions and feigned emotions, Donizetti invests this aria with considerable pathos. It is set in B flat minor, a dark key with often tragic associations. It is closely related, however, to the balmy key of D flat major, which became ubiquitous in operatic love scenes. It is to that warmer, happier key that the aria aspires. The aria begins in a darker mood with Harp arpeggios and a plangent bassoon solo showing Nemorino’s compassion for Adina. A clarinet provides its own sympathetic echo, while the melodic line is littered with rising appoggiaturas, which provide brief harmonic crushes. And, as Nemorino realises that Adina loves him, the music finally moves into the major.
The second verse, although a repeat of the first, has greater emotional intensity. The flute now doubles the clarinet’s compassionate response. But the most significant alteration is the eventual shift into a sunny B flat major. The strings move from tentative pizzicato to broad bowing and Nemorino, once feckless appears an ardent lover at last. His decorative run of notes before the final cadence displays overflowing happiness.
Like L’elisir d’amore as a whole, Nemorino’s famous aria could seem sweet but inconsequential. Unwilling to shortchange his singers and audience, however, Donizetti invests such milestones in the story with pathos and panache. Seeing beyond the quacks and elixirs, Nemorino is a boy worth catching. So it’s little wonder that Adina ends up confessing her love for him.
L’elisir d’amore returns to The Royal Opera from 13 November – 7 December.