ACT I: opens with the chorus of peasants cooling off in the shade from work in the fields under the hottest noonday sun. Adina is reading a book, telling the workers the story of Tristan and Isolde, and about the elixir that softened Isolde’s heart. It is likely that the peasants could not read the book for themselves.
Nemorino, watching Adina from nearby, overhears the story and knows he must find this elixir to hopefully change her heart toward him. He loves Adina dearly, but has very little hope that because of her beauty, intelligence and wealth, that he could ever win her heart. She torments him with her indifference.
The music is lively, clever, romantic, and poignantly appropriate to the characters; their contrasting motives are interwoven throughout the ensembles.
The entrance of Sergeant Belcore is unmistakable. A rather stiff, self-important character, his dotted military rhythms and exaggerated triplets define his personality. Brazenly he proposes marriage to Adina at their first meeting, “just as Paris offers the apple to the most beautiful woman.” Belcore even suggests that no beautiful girl has ever turned him away, and consistent with his military swagger, demands that Adina surrender.
She shows her clever skill by flirtatiously putting him off.
By the end of the first scene, Nemorino finally has a chance to speak with Adina. His awkward lovesick manner is not new to her, and she impatiently tries to reason with him – he should go visit his sick uncle, or find another purpose for his affections.
All characters have been introduced except Dulcamara in the opening scene, clearly defined by both their text and musical themes.
A trumpet call changes the scene and announces Dr. Dulcamara. Angular, repetitious music clarifies Dulcamara’s overblown position. He can’t be trusted, but he will be successful selling his wine-filled elixir bottles. The peasants are intrigued and gullible, but Nemorino is a true believer. He wants to know if this is the same magic elixir given to Isolde and if it will be as effective. The fast-thinking Dulcamara of course agrees, finds an appropriate bottle, and sells it to the desperate country bumpkin for just the exact change that Nemorino has in his pocket! The quack doctor cleverly covers his tracks by saying that the potion won’t take effect until the next day.
In each case, when the emotion or character focus changes, the music guides our reactions appropriately.
Alone, Nemorino, talks (sings) to the magic potion. He takes his first drink, and is sure that he feels the gushing warmth of the magic love potion right away as he swallows. Gurgling motives in the orchestra accompany his drinking. He is certain that Adina must feel this miraculous change too and will adore him very soon.
However, when Adina returns, she wonders to herself who the idiot is. Nemorino is so happy, and she has never seen him like this. He has always been painfully shy and nervous. He boldly says that he is trying to take her advice, and that by tomorrow all will be well.
In their duet, “Esulti pur la barbara,” we feel the urgency of the rhythms and in the accompaniment, as well as in the melodic framework. She only sees Nemorino’s foolishness, but he is sure that in just a short time Adina will be struck by the potion.
Unfortunately, Belcore reappears. This time he succeeds with Adina, and she agrees to marry him in one week. Nemorino is full of worry again. The trio is a masterful three-way conversation, full of asides, i.e. personal speculation and comment. The fretful fervor continues through the end of ACT I as orders arrive for the platoon to leave. Belcore proposes that Adina marry him immediately before the soldiers must depart.
ACT II: later the same evening, a wedding feast is in progress for Adina and Belcore. Dulcamara is still there, and sings a song with Adina in a clever “barcarole for two voices.” Nemorino has not come to the festivities. The notary arrives, and Adina is clearly unsettled.
When Nemorino joins the scene, he is frantic, and speaks with Dulcamara alone. Nemorino has seen the Notary and feels all is lost. Dulcamara tries to convince him that the Elixir will work, and that all the girls will love him very soon. At the same time Dulcamara murmurs that he will leave within the hour (in order to escape any trouble from his fraudulent dealings!)
Belcore returns, confused by Adina’s stalling to sign the marriage contract. He notices that Nemorino seems troubled. Nemorino explains that he needs money (for another bottle of elixir) and doesn’t know where to find any. Belcore proposes that Nemorino enlist in the army, and he will be paid immediately. The two sing a lengthy duet as Nemorino struggles with the idea of becoming a soldier, something he clearly does not want to choose.
The music in this duet is specifically crafted to underscore the emotional “subtext” of each character. Belcore tries to convince Nemorino in urgent patter rhythms, while Nemorino sings contrasting lyrical triplets, dreaming of winning Adina. When all is accomplished and Nemorino signs on the “dotted line,” Belcore’s music abruptly changes to triplets, noting that he has successfully recruited his “rival!” Nemorino likewise changes to a simple, lyrical long line melody that shows his renewed hope in winning Adina, oblivious to Belcore’s manipulative behavior.
Important information is revealed by a chorus of secretive girls and Giannetta. Through the local gossip channels, we learn that Nemorino has miraculously just inherited a great some of money from his uncle’s estate; the girls sing “sotto voce,” with exciting dotted rhythms and great melodic leaps.
Nemorino, having now consumed another bottle of the magic elixir, has no idea about his newly attained wealth. He is completely relaxed, singing slow, waltz-like rhythms, convinced that Isolde’s love potion is finally beginning to work. After all, the girls are suddenly interested and lavishing attention upon him!
Dulcamara, still in town, is unaware that the object of Nemorino’s elixir is Adina. He tells her the story of the country bumpkin who recently bought two large bottles of elixir, having enlisted in the army in order to afford the purchase. Adina finally realizes that Nemorino’s love is sincere, and she regrets having teased him constantly about it. She is in love with him, and is afraid that it might be too late.
They all leave. Nemorino, basks in the tender moment of seeing Adina shed a tear. He knows that it must finally be for him. “Una furtiva lagrima” is the lyrical and dramatic turning point of this opera, both for Nemorino, and the audience.
When Adina returns, her response is pensive and gentle, the complete opposite of her previous character. Nemorino doesn’t understand; he still plans to leave. He is bound by military duty, and also will not believe that Adina loves him until she tells him directly without coercion. She explains that she purchased his military contract back from Belcore. Nemorino is free! She sings her final aria, “Prendi, per me sei libera,” and asks his forgiveness. She truly loves him.Nemorino now knows for certain that Dr. Dulcamara was right!
Dulcamara brings out his new supply of Isolde’s elixir and offers one to Belcore as consolation. The Sargeant however, has no worries, that there will be other women happily awaiting his conquest.