According to statistics set forth in the article “Donizetti and Romani” by William Ashbrook, approximately 125 composers set more than 80 libretti produced by Felice Romani (1788-1865). Between the years 1827 and 1833, Romani was the sole librettist for Vincenzo Bellini’s operas, numbering seven. Of Donizetti’s over seventy operas, however, Romani’s texts are represented in ten, the majority appearing in Donizetti’s early works written before 1835. Romani also wrote libretti for Rossini, and Verdi, among the many others.
Romani was a highly respected poet and scholar of literature and mythology, and considered one of Italy’s finest librettists, obtaining the post of official librettist for the world-renown opera house, La Scala, in Milan. Despite being fluent in French, translating the language, and a majority of his libretti being based upon French literature, Romani refused to work in Paris.
Romani’s libretto in Italian for Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is based upon Eugène Scribe’s libretto for Daniel Auber’s Le philtre (1831). The 19th century setting is shifted from the Basque country to an Italian village for Donizetti’s opera.
In terms of character development, Scribe is strongly influenced by French farce, and was one of the most sought-after and gifted writers of his day. Romani’s Italian-based story however, suggests a quartet of Italian commedia dell’arte characters – “stock types” – such as the quack doctor, Dulcamara, the romantic lead, Adina, the country bumpkin, Nemorino, and the pompous Sergeant Belcore (Jolicoeur in the French version offers an interesting “play on words” in the Italian translation.)
The French composer Auber was extremely successful with his new opera, and within a year, Donizetti with Romani adapted it to an Italian setting. Auber’s Le Philtre is a folklore-based, lyric comedy with heroic elements. “Le philtre” refers to a dubious philter (love potion or elixir). Romani’s story line parallels Auber’s script remarkably closely.
Donizetti called L’elisir d’amore a “drama giocoso,” implying both comedy and serious emotional content. Donizetti’s music is haunting and eloquent in expressing both tears and laughter. Considering their strong similarities, it is in the unique musical treatment by the two (French and Italian) composers that the two works differ the most. Although Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is by far the more recognized and popular, both works are substantial in their own right.