Matthew Polenzani: Here's this guy who is so sure that he's finally found the lever, the thing that would open this door. And, of course, it's not even a lever. It's nothing. It's just wine, but he doesn't know.
Rhiannon Giddens: From WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is AriaCode. I'm Rhiannon Giddens.
Fred Plotkin: Sospir is a sigh, but it's not a sigh of anguish.
It's a sigh of love.
Rhiannon Giddens: Every episode, we do a deep dive into a single aria so we can hear it in a whole new way. Today, it's Una Furtiva Lagrima from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore.
Judith Fetterley: The desire for connection and for love was strong enough to make me willing to risk.
Rhiannon Giddens: Have you ever thought about how much easier dating would be if you could just drink a little love potion and suddenly become irresistible to that person you had your eye on? Love potions have been a conceit of stories from the Middle Ages all the way to the rom coms we stream from our couches. But they're not just the stuff of fiction.
People have tried them out in real life, too. And let me tell you, it gets pretty wild. Lizard necks, viper's blood, toxic beetles, and, uh, toenails are just some of the ingredients that have been crushed, cooked, and corked in the name of romance. And cakes have been made with the literal sweat and blood of hopeful lovers.
They were called, wait for it, sweaty cakes. And of course, there's the age old and way more palatable elixir that still has a powerful effect on courtin' couples. A nice bottle of wine. Fortunately that's the kind of potion we're talking about today. L'Elisir d'Amore, or The Elixir of Love by Gaetano Donizzeti tells the story of the Lovesick tenor Nemorino, who pines away for the self-possessed and beautiful Adina.
Adina is not interested or so she tells him over and over again. But Nemorino's determined to win her heart, so he spends all of his money on a supposed love potion, really just wine, from a traveling snake oil salesman. Nemorino drinks. He plays it cool. He waits for signs that Adina's caught in the potion's spell, but instead, she agrees to marry a sergeant in the army that's arrived in their village.
Nemorino is so desperate that he joins the army himself, just to make some more money to buy another bottle of that potion. When Adina learns what he was willing to give up for her, she cries a single furtive tear, Una Furtiva Lagrima. This tear is Nemorino's sign that she loves him. It's also his inspiration to sing one of the most recognizable and heartbreakingly glorious arias in the history of opera.
It's a short and simple song that's inspired many, many tears, and we've got a great team of guests to tell us why. Over the course of his career, spanning more than 30 years, and counting, tenor Matthew Polenzani has sung the role of Nemorino on opera stages around the world. But his life as a musician started in his childhood living room.
Matthew Polenzani: Music has been a huge part of my family history. My parents both sang in barbershop choirs and barbershop quartets, and my grandfather was a very famous and well known barbershopper. We sang all the time in the house, sitting around with guitars and singing Beatles songs and things like that. Those are always really fun times.
Rhiannon Giddens: Fred Plotkin is the author of Opera 101, a complete guide to learning and loving opera, and he's a proud Donizetti fanboy.
Fred Plotkin: I feel that Donizetti is one of the most undervalued of all opera composers. He's loved and admired for just a few operas, but The range of his output, the genius, and above all, the psychological insight that he brings to his characters.
I think only Mozart before him brought so much psychology.
Rhiannon Giddens: Next up, Laine Doggett, a French professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland, and author of the book Love Cures, Healing and Love Magic in Old French Romance. She knows more than a little about the intersection of love and magic.
Laine Doggett: I published primarily on 12th and 13th century French medieval text, a genre in French known as Romance, the stories of love, chivalric adventure, elements of the marvelous, so all kinds of magic is brought in.
Rhiannon Giddens: And finally, we have Judith Fetterley, a former professor, master gardener, and writer. Judith's personal love story involving a little bit of elixir was featured in the New York Times Modern Love column in 2021. It's called, Was She Just Another Nicely Packaged Pain Delivery System?
Judith Fetterley: I had been badly damaged by a partner of 17 plus years.
She basically dumped me. For another younger woman, I was in my 60s and I was really a wreck. How could I trust myself to pick a partner since I had done so badly the last time?
Rhiannon Giddens: Let's find out! Here's Una Furtiva Lagrima from Donizetti's l'Elisir d'Amore.
Fred Plotkin: L'elisir d'amore, The Elixir of Love, is a straightforward story of boy loves girl, girl ignores boy, then she notices him, then they squabble, feign indifference to one another, but they ultimately fall in love and they marry.
Laine Doggett: It's been said that there are only two themes in literature, love and power. Love shows up everywhere. Because it is a primal emotion that drives much human action. And then love can result in social structures through marriage, family, other institutions that not only are about the individual but also about society.
So people are fascinated by stories of love.
Judith Fetterley: It was about four years after this dumping event. And I'd had a number of dates, and they were all disastrous, so I had kind of given up all of that. And I had a friend, and she had retired, and she was not flourishing. So I thought, well, if we did something together, I could get her out of the house, I could get her interested.
I knew she liked wine. I saw this. There's a class being offered at the Bethlehem High School on wine. So I said, I'm going to sign us up for this, and that's when this whole drama around Finding Sarah began.
Matthew Polenzani: Nemorino is a lovesick young man who doesn't have a lot of money.
Fred Plotkin: Who's kind of a bumpkin.
Matthew Polenzani: Doesn't even really have a job, but he's got a deep and abiding interest in this woman called Adina.
Fred Plotkin: Adina is a landowner.
Laine Doggett: She's wealthier because of the land, and she has power.
Matthew Polenzani: She's a smart and talented woman, and is going places. She's in charge of the town, for all intents and purposes. She's a powerful and important figure.
Judith Fetterley: The first class on red wine, I went to the class alone, so I parked in a different place than I usually park and I went into this building that was a maze of corridors and doors and I was completely lost. I had no idea where this wine class was and then I looked down the hall and here came this gorgeous This woman, beautifully dressed, she had on this wonderful long raincoat, rose beige color, beautifully tailored.
She was striding very purposefully down the hall and I thought to myself, ah, she is going to the wine class. She is elegant, she is ready to discuss the qualities and beauties of red wine.
Matthew Polenzani: We meet Nemorino and he's singing an aria about how beautiful Idina is and what an idiot he is and why he can't even express to her why she's important to him. And we're lucky enough for him to have overheard her reading a story about Tristan and Isolde and how this potion has caused their love to bloom.
Laine Doggett: The potion is created by Isolde's mother. She is the Queen of Ireland. And it is to help facilitate the wedding night of her daughter, Princess Isolde, in an arranged marriage. The King Mark of Cornwall, to cement the peace between these two small kingdoms. Isolde will go there, she has no choice in this matter, and Isolde's mother prepares a potion, gives the potion to the lady in waiting, and says, On the wedding night, serve Wine to them. This will cause them to fall in love.
Fred Plotkin: I think that Donizetti understood the mythological appeal of Tristan and Isolde of potions as a device to put people to sleep, to wake people up, to make you not recognize the person that you've known all your life.
Judith Fetterley: And so I did approach her and I said, Are you by any chance going to the wine class? And she said, Yes, I am. And I said, Can you direct me to the wine class? And she did so. And then I recognized her. She was someone I had met many, many, many years ago through a mutual acquaintance. And she recognized me.
Matthew Polenzani: This man arrives in town, whose name is Dr. Dulcamara.
Fred Plotkin: He's a real charlatan.
Laine Doggett: A snake oil salesman.
Matthew Polenzani: He sells potions of all types.
Fred Plotkin: He purports to have every kind of solution for every problem that you have, from gout... to Lack of Love, anything you need, he has it in that bottle.
Matthew Polenzani: Nemorino, recalling the story of Tristan and Isolde, decides to ask him if he might happen to sell this crazy potion that would ignite the flame between Nemorino and Adina.
Of course, all it is is Bordeaux.
Fred Plotkin: Cheap Bordeaux at that. Dr. Dulcamada is kind of like the Wizard of Oz with Bordeaux wine.
Judith Fetterley: In my little town, there is a wonderful independent wine store run by an independent provider. And he allowed the class to come down and he provided wine for us to taste. It was absolutely marvelous.
So Sarah and I were both there. And then we began talking. We discovered that we both loved red wine, of course, which is indeed an elixir, and that we loved opera. And that we loved late night movies. And we just kind of began to reconnect.
Laine Doggett: So on the voyage to Cornwall, one day the ship puts ashore, and all of the other people leave the ship. So you have Tristan and Isolde left on the ship. They find the potion, and they drink it. The text has told us they have had a lot of time together, and also that they're a well matched couple. They're essentially the same age, they are the same level of wealth, and they have the same levels of attractiveness.
So they drink the thing that lowers the inhibitions and causes a sense of euphoria. And the next thing you know, they have consummated their passion. So, in answer to the question, can a potion cause people to fall in love? My answer is no, but it will facilitate the process if the couple who drinks the potion is predisposed to falling in love in the first place.
Fred Plotkin: Dr. Dulcamara tells Lamarino that it takes 24 hours for the potion to take effect, by which point, by the way, the doctor will be gone.
Matthew Polenzani: But Nemerino is not quick enough to have understood it. Here's this guy who is so sure that he's finally found the lever, the thing that would open this door. And, of course, it's not even a lever.
It's nothing. It's just wine, but he doesn't know. And what happens, of course, is he gets drunk, and a little drunker, and a little drunker.
Fred Plotkin: What I love in his music is the way you can hear the warmth of the potion, which is really just Bordeaux, entering the system of Nemorino in the way he gradually becomes intoxicated.
Ebro is a wonderful Italian word because it means filled with, but in this case, filled with an intoxicant.
Matthew Polenzani: A soldier comes into town, whose name is Belcore, and he absolutely has eyes for a dina, which works up Nemorino to no end. All he's saying is like, all he needs is a little bit of his courage, couldn't you just let me have some of that love?
Let me have some of that.
Judith Fetterley: We did begin to do many things together. We started going to late night movies, and then we would go out, you know, we would talk about them afterwards. There was this one time when we were meeting for coffee, and I thought I saw her coming, and then it wasn't her, and my heart fell, and I thought, oh dear, oh dear.
This is a sign, this is a indication that I've got more than a casual interest in this person because when she finally showed up I was overjoyed.
Laine Doggett: When we talk about falling in love starting in antique literature, we have the figure of Cupid, who later becomes known in the Middle Ages as simply the God of Love, who comes in and shoots you with an arrow, which enters your eye, travels to your heart. It is an external force that hits you. You react to it.
You are captured by it. In fact, you can't stop it. So, there's already an idea that to fall in love is to lose control.
Matthew Polenzani: When Nemorino hears Adina agree to marry Belcore, she says, we'll do it in six days. He's ecstatic because all he needs is one day, and all of a sudden the love will bloom inside of her.
But when she sees how happy he is about her getting married in six days, she thinks, that's not good. That's not it. That's not at all what I was going for. I'm trying to teach him a lesson, and he's excited. Fine. Let's get married today, which breaks him.
And that spurs him to do something really crazy.
Judith Fetterley: We began to talk in a slightly more intimate way than we had before about past relationships and so forth. And at one point I asked... I said, well, who would you say has been the love of your life? Sarah did one of her wonderful scrunching up of faces and kind of laughing.
And she said, well, perhaps I would say my cat Beau. And I wanted to say, oh, I think I might, I might be able to displace Beau in your affections if you would try me. But of course I didn't say that. But it was the closest I came to ever actually bursting out and saying, well, what about me? Would she want to try me?
Fred Plotkin: Nemorino. Love's sick. He spent all of his money buying that potion. The only way for him to get more money is to enlist in the army for Belcore, so that he will get money to then buy another round of the potion to try to attract Adina.
Matthew Polenzani: Which is an idiot thing to do because he's going to be stuck in the army, but he's not thinking of these things.
It's love or bust for this guy. And in the meanwhile, we find out... That his uncle has died and left him a fortune. So Nemorino's a rich man, but he doesn't know.
Laine Doggett: They are now a well matched couple, just like Tristan and Isolde. They have the same level of wealth, and in all these stories, all the men are beautiful and all the women are, too.
So, the society around them will admire this pairing.
Matthew Polenzani: Adina finds out that he's agreed to go into the army, and this she can't live with, because she can't live with the idea of Nemorino. Setting foot on a battlefield, or leaving his town, or leaving her, even, and she catches a glimpse of what the truth is in his heart.
Fred Plotkin: And she's very touched by that, and sheds a tear.
Matthew Polenzani: And Nemorino sees it.
Laine Doggett: The furtive tear gives him the sign that he should persist because she does, in fact, love him. And it is a liquid, so you could say it has the effect of a love potion.
Matthew Polenzani: One of the beautiful things about Una Furtiva Lagrima is the way it starts.
Fred Plotkin: It's the music before he sings that really sets the stage for everything that follows.
The instrumentation is so unusual, it's a harp, it's strings played pizzicato, and a bassoon. What a weird, but beautiful combination of sounds.
Strings played pizzicato basically means they're being plucked. And to me, it sounds like raindrops, not teardrops.
Matthew Polenzani: The bassoon has kind of a forlorn and lonely quality to it, introverted in a way, and so it sets up the tone for Nemorino's rumination about what he's just seen and how to understand what it means.
Fred Plotkin: It's a nuanced and rather broad range of emotions, because he's singing not just about himself, but about Adina, the woman he loves, who he believes finally loves him.
Matthew Polenzani: And really, it's quite a simple melody that Donizetti wrote, but my feeling is that the simple melodies often say with greater clarity exactly what the heart is feeling, especially as he's able to pare away everything else and focus in just on that tear. A simple melody that cleaves the heart open. And in this case, it's a really, it's a really sharp knife.
Judith Fetterley: So there were the kind of conflicting forces, the growing attraction and the delight in our growing relationship and our growing attraction. Then the romantic excitement that comes with that and up against that came this other force of I'm damaged goods, I don't trust myself. I don't trust anybody else.
This is impossible. But luckily, I suppose, the desire for connection and for love was strong enough to hold those other forces at bay and make me willing to risk. The risk was on both sides. If I was accepted, there was huge risk there, and if I was rejected, there was risk there.
Matthew Polenzani: So we get the opening with this beautiful bassoon, and the harp playing in an arpeggio underneath. And then Nemorino comes in, and he starts the aria, singing the exact same melody.
Fred Plotkin: A furtive tear sprang forth from her eye. It's as if Nemorino, through the elixir that he's consumed, suddenly finds his poetic moment in ways that he certainly does not have in the rest of the opera. A furtive here, you would not say furtive. If you were a rustic, perhaps illiterate farm worker.
Matthew Polenzani: As Nemirino moves through the thought process of wondering what the tear could mean, it occurs to him that there's only one answer, and the answer is she loves him.
When you reach this long F. "Che più cercando io vo?" We leave B flat minor, and when he arrives, he's singing the same note, but all of a sudden, we're in major.
He says, she loves me, I see it. I see it.
The sun comes out.
I mean, it's such a joyful moment, actually, this feeling of knowledge of everything that you've been hoping for. Donizetti's way of exploding Nemorino's heart is to switch from B flat minor to D flat major. I mean, it's the first time he has seen her absolutely open and bare.
Laine Doggett: Part of the story is her realizing that she does, in fact, love Nemorino.
But what's important for Adina is not simply that she fall in love, but the bigger idea of the societal function of marriage, which is that you marry, you have children, and they inherit your property. Because without that... Even in the 19th century, you have instability. She is a property owner. She needs to marry.
Judith Fetterley: My friend finally said, one of you's got to do something. And so I said, all right, I'll do something. And I started to write this letter, what I call my letter of intent. And then I rewrote it, you know, I do it through this agonizing process of trying every single word had to be very carefully couched so that it gave Sarah a graceful out if she wasn't interested and so that it would preserve our friendship.
Laine Doggett: So I think it's very easy for modern audiences to think of marriage as just an individual choice and to forget that for many, many centuries, in fact, the marriages were almost always arranged, usually by the fathers. So women in many cases did not have a voice, women's desire can be overlooked or never even thought of, but it's not an arranged marriage.
She, Adina, gets to choose. The fact that she's a female property owner and the fact that she has choice in marriage are really important for the story.
Matthew Polenzani: And then of course he goes back to minor. It's him dropping back into a ruminative and thoughtful state. He starts thinking about the things that he would like to have happen and how he'd like to have his breath intermingled with hers, and he'd like to feel the beat of her heart.
Fred Plotkin: I miei sospir, confondere per poco a' suoi sospir! Sospir is a sigh, but it's not a sigh of anguish. It's a sigh of love.
And it's so beautifully carried in that music.
I palpiti, I palpiti, sentir, palpiti, it's heartbeat. Most of this aria is about legato, a stringing together of vowels. However, I palpiti sentir are meant to be the moments where it's slightly chopped up to reflect the palpiti, the heartbeat, the heartbeat. And you hear that in Donizetti's music. Follow the words.
This is what Donizetti surely understood.
Judith Fetterley: I finally got this letter done, and I was going to Milwaukee to visit my brother. Probably in a sort of cowardly way, I thought, I'll drop this letter off before I leave, because then... If she doesn't respond, we won't have to face each other, we'll have time to regroup at a distance. So I put the letter in the mail and then I got on the plane.
Laine Doggett: Adina has a certain amount of power. That kind of power comes with responsibility. But she also is able to have a voice, she gets to pick who she wants to love, and she also has the ability to have a say in how her life works out.
Judith Fetterley: I was under a great deal of stress, though. I mean, I had no idea what Sarah was going to say, and I was really just massively stressed out.
So I thought, well, I'll do my yoga stretches, and I started to do them, and something popped in my back. I learned later that I had herniated a disc. I didn't know that at the time, but I have never experienced such pain in my life. I couldn't move.
Matthew Polenzani: Aria is a simple two stanza aria that the same melody repeats twice when we arrive back to major.
It's interesting, we arrive at an F "confondere i miei coi suoi sospir...", but then instead of going to D-flat major, he goes to B-flat major, which is the key we start the aria in, but in major.
Heaven, I could die. I could die. I could just die. Di più non chiedo. I could ask for nothing else.
All he needs is just the simple knowledge. The knowledge that she loves him. The knowledge that they're going to be together. He says, yeah, if this could happen, I could die.
Fred Plotkin: There are so many different ways the great tenors have made the aria their own, in the same notes, in the same music, in the same words. There have been French singers who sing with a certain kind of French elegance, let's call it. There have been dramatic tenors who sing it with a lot more oomph than you would ever expect.
There have been rural tenors who come from agricultural backgrounds who bring a very charming rusticity because he, Nemorino, is always referred to as a rustico, a rustic guy from the country. And then you have people who fasten on the love aspect and It's absolutely a love poem that they're singing.
They're inebriated with the love that they're feeling for Adina, and the sudden realization that she may feel it for him as well.
Judith Fetterley: Sarah came home on Friday from work, and when she came home and there was the letter, the moment she got it, she called to say, oh, she was interested, too, to say yes.
So I struggled to the phone, and then I explained that I had done some terrible thing to my back. But I was pretty much high on painkillers when I got the news that she was also interested. So it was kind of a double high at that moment.
Matthew Polenzani: As Nemorino reaches the end of the aria, in good bel canto tradition, he gets the opportunity to drop a cadenza on the end of the piece. A cadenza is generally the kind of thing that would be used to show off a vocal moment. In this particular case, the cadenza that Donizetti wrote is largely the cadenza that most tenors sing, with a little minor variation, where instead of the top note being a G, the top note is an A.
Once we pass that moment, we get a little echo of the aria, where he says, Si può morir, he goes major, and he's saying, I could die, then he goes minor,
D'amore. Of love. Yeah, that's really the thrust of the whole thing, isn't it? Man, I could die of love. What a beautiful idea. When the bassoon comes back at the end, it plays first a little melody in major, and then it plays it in minor.
But we end up in B flat major at the end, and really, the sun is out and shining on him.
Fred Plotkin: You can die from love. It sounds a bit wistful, but it ends very happily because he understands that he and Adina do have a future.
I think that Donizetti, despite his great gift at comedy, Donizetti was, at core, a very tragic figure, and understood how to present that. Nemorino's world at the very beginning is nothing but tragedy and woe, and so by setting it in the minor key, in the tragic key, Donizetti allows himself and also allows his character to suddenly open when we see a crack of sunshine and suddenly these beautiful tenor voices become sunny.
That's what Donizetti made as a gift to tenors.
Matthew Polenzani: After all these years of singing this role, I cannot say that I feel a lot differently about who this guy is. I feel like I knew who he was in the beginning, and I know who he is now. And when I get to Una Furtiva Lagrima, I always arrive in a happy place.
Not just because of what he's speaking about, but because the melody... And the music is so beautiful that even after 23 years, I still have a strong attachment, not just to the aria, but to the guy. I love the guy for his consistency and for his honesty and for his openness to the truth.
Laine Doggett: Literature has so many different ways that it intersects with life and it does so at its best with these eternal questions of what is love, why do we fall in love, and of course there's other topics too, power, death.
There's kinds of different things, but the big questions of human existence show up again and again, and love is just one of the big subjects that people are perennially fascinated by.
Judith Fetterley: I'm about to turn 85, and we've been together almost 17 years, and the main feeling I have is one of enormous gratitude.
I think it's a miracle to find so much love so late in life. I think it's a testament to both of us because it's not easy being in a relationship and it gets harder the older you get. I feel so grateful that the part of me with the capacity to love is still alive and that for me is such a form of vitality and such a connection to life.
Rhiannon Giddens: Writer Judith Fetterley, Professor Laine Doggett. Writer Fred Plotkin and tenor Matthew Polenzani. Decoding Una Furtiva Lagrima from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore. Matthew will be back to sing it for you after the break.
When a tenor steps on stage to sing Una Furtiva Lagrima, he knows that the audience has been waiting for this moment since the overture began. No pressure! Here's tenor Matthew Polanzani Absolutely owning that moment on stage at the Metropolitan Opera.
Una furtiva lagrima
negli occhi suoi spuntò:
Quelle festose giovani
Che più cercando io vo?
Che più cercando io vo?
M'ama! Sì, m'ama, lo vedo. Lo vedo.
Un solo instante i palpiti
del suo bel cor sentir!
I miei sospir, confondere
per poco a' suoi sospir!
I palpiti, i palpiti sentir,
confondere i miei coi suoi sospir...
Cielo! Si può morir!
Di più non chiedo, non chiedo.
Ah, cielo! Si può! Si, può morir!
Di più non chiedo, non chiedo.
Si può morire! Si può morir d'amor.
Rhiannon Giddens: That was tenor Matthew Polanzani winning all of our hearts with his performance of Una Furtiva Lagrima from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore.
That's it for this episode of AriaCode. If season four is winning your heart so far, please spread the word and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps other people find the show. Coming up next time, it's another tearjerker.
"Grief is such a pure and simple emotion. It's so all encompassing, especially in those first hours, weeks, months, years
Che farò senza Euridice? From Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice.
Ariacode is a co production of WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera. The show is produced, edited, and scored by Marrin Lazyan. Mixing and sound design by Matt Boynton from Ultraviolet Audio, and original music by Hannes Brown. I'd like to give a huge thanks to the University of North Carolina's Music Department and to St. Mary's College of Maryland for help recording this episode. I'm Rhiannon Giddens. See you next time.
No lizards or toxic beetles were harmed in the making of this podcast, I promise.