Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

June 25, 2017

© Richard Campbell

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The so-called love doctor

Dr Dulcamara in L’elisir d’amore and his concoctions that cure everything — even heartache

The excerpt which follows comes from Doctors in Opera: An Irreverent Look at Operatic Medicine by the Scottish doctor J. Ian S. Robertson. As he explains in the preface, the account of this, and the more than 40 operas considered in the book, is derived mainly from the author’s own “often very free” interpretation of the scores, libretti on the sources on which they are based, and on other publications on the subject.

It is hardly surprising to find quack doctors appearing in opera. If indeed there is any surprise at all, it is that there are not more of them. An early colourful example of this genre is Rubiccone (tenor) in Fischietti’s Il mercato di Malmantile to a libretto by Goldoni. One of the most successful of operatic quacks is to be seen in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) of 1832. Donizetti composed this work to a libretto in Italian by Romani, who derived his text from that Scribe had earlier prepared in French for Auber’s opera Le philtre of 1831.

The action of Donizetti’s opera is set on a farm somewhere in Italy. Nemorino, tenor, a semi-literate farm worker, is in love with Adina, soprano, the as yet unmarried well-to-do farm owner, but she initially spurns Nemorino in favour of the dashing soldier, the baritone Sergeant Belcore. Nemorino has vaguely heard the story of Tristan and Isolde, and he understands from this that if he can somehow get hold of a love potion — and provided it is properly administered — he can induce Adina to fall for him.

And then there is for Nemorino a godsend. The village is visited by Dr Dulcamara, a quack doctor peddling fake medicines purporting to cure anything: hemorrhoids, headaches, baldness, impotence, infertility, hyperfertility or whatever.

Nemorino approaches the so-called “Dr” Dulcamara and requests to purchase from him a love potion. Dr Dulcamara is momentarily taken aback. He has never been asked for a love potion before. Nevertheless, despite external appearances (he is usually sung by a portly bass), Dulcamara is quick on his feet, and he promptly provides for Nemorino to purchase what purports to be a love potion, but is in fact a bottle of cheap Bordeaux wine. That is what Romani’s libretto says: “Bordeaux wine.”

There are several points of comment here. The date of the opera is 1832. The great classification of Bordeaux wines, centred on the Medoc, was introduced only later, in 1855. Since that classification, and probably largely because of it, Bordeaux wines have rarely looked back. Nowadays Bordeaux wines include some of the most exclusive and expensive in the world. It might then be thought odd, even in 1832, for a librettist to select a Bordeaux wine to palm off as a cheap fake medicine. And I think it is even odder for a Bordeaux wine of any sort to turn up in a remote Italian village. But this is an Italian opera with an Italian librettist. By taking a Bordeaux wine as a quack doctor’s prop, the Italians are here, I believe, mocking French pretensions.

Indeed there is, in my opinion, evidence that this is the case. There was, as I mentioned, an earlier version of this opera, the French composer Auber’s Le philtre of 1831 to a libretto by the French writer Scribe. Although the two stories are very similar, there are some interesting differences.

The action of Le philtre takes place in a village, on the banks of the River Adour, in the Basque region of southwest France. The quack is described as “an Italian charlatan by the name of Dr Furbaroso.” In the only two scores of this opera that I have been able to find, there is no mention of wine of any sort; the nature of the elixir is not revealed. Hence I consider that in Donizetti’s later opera, the Italians are getting back at the French. If that is the case, the Italians have won this particular skirmish, because whereas Donizetti’s opera has survived prominently in the repertoire to this day, Auber’s Le philter has disappeared almost without trace.

Nemorino buys the supposed love potion and then proceeds to drink it himself. This is not, I think, the recommended procedure. Although I cannot claim to have gone in for a great deal of this sort of thing myself, my understanding of the matter is that it is the girl who must somehow be induced to swallow the elixir. She then gazes on her would-be suitor, seducer or whatever, and is lost.

Nemorino, however, does not know that. He is just doing what he has been told to do by Dr Dulcamara, and Dulcamara does not know either, he is simply making things up as he goes along. So Nemorino drinks the stuff. He gets slightly drunk and makes rather a fool of himself, but not much else happens. Certainly Adina does not show the slightest sign of falling for him.

Nemorino returns to Dr Dulcamara and asks if perhaps matters can be speeded up. He is particularly anxious because the wedding of Adina with Sergeant Belcore is now impending. Dulcamara is now, of course, on familiar ground. He has been through this sort of thing many times before.

“Ah, that is straightforward. You simply need a further dose.”

This, however, raises a problem for Nemorino because he has no more money. Nothing daunted, he raises the necessary funds by enlisting in the army via the offices of the conveniently adjacent Sergeant Belcore, and for this he receives a small fee. Nemorino now purchases another bottle of Bordeaux, as before believing it to be an elixir of love and also, as before, he drinks it himself.

This time round, things are very different. Not only Adina, but virtually every other girl in the village is now chasing furiously after him. However, there is hereabouts another, possibly confounding factor. Nemorino’s rich uncle has died, leaving him a considerable fortune. Nemorino at first does not know this, but the village girls have got wind of it and it could well be that the legacy, rather than the second bottle of wine, has done the trick.

In the end, almost everyone in the opera goes away happy. Nemorino gets the girl whom he has pursued all along. Adina has acquired a now wealthy, if somewhat dim, husband and she buys him out of the army. Sergeant Belcore rationalizes matters by reflecting that Adina was probably not up to much anyway and there are plenty of other girls around. Finally, Dr Dulcamara is especially content. Not only is he in the business of selling worthless medicines for the supposed relief of hemorrhoids, headaches, impotence and so forth, he now also purveys love potions which, as can be seen by all, spectacularly work.


Extract reprinted with permission from Doctors in Opera: An Irreverent Look at Operatic Medicine (Scottish Opera, 2016).

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