Setting: a village in Italy; early 19th century
Scene one – Adina’s farm As workers rest in the shade, Nemorino secretly admires the beautiful Adina reading aloud from a book. She laughs over the story of Tristan who used a love potion to obtain the fair Isolde’s heart. The swaggering army officer Belcore enters and presents a gift of flowers to Adina, which she accepts with pleasure. He suggests they marry immediately – in both love and war, why waste time? – but Adina, slightly taken aback, asks for a few days to consider the offer. Nemorino is torn apart by the prospect of losing his beloved.
The laborers return to the fields, and Nemorino musters his courage for a private word. Adina is dismissive – he should hurry off to visit his dying uncle rather than hopelessly pursuing her, as he may lose his inheritance to someone else. The smitten young man is indifferent to financial gain.
Scene two – The marketplace The villagers excitedly anticipate the arrival of a mysterious visitor. It is Dulcamara, a “doctor” from Ferrara, who has come to sell for a single scudo his various antidotes, at once able to cure dropsy, asthma, consumption and even rickets. Nemorino excitedly asks if he stocks the amorous draught of Isolde. After a moment of bewilderment, Dulcamara quickly assures him that he does indeed prepare the love potion – in fact it is quite commonly used these days. Nemorino only has one zecchino…which just happens to be the market price. The magic elixir may look like red wine, but it is extremely potent and requires only one day to take effect (by that time the good doctor will be well on his way). The young man eagerly downs the drug.
Adina is vexed by Nemorino’s change of mood, which is suddenly buoyant and carefree. She had expected him to be more distressed by the news of her recent attachment, but Nemorino claims that by tomorrow, his heart shall be cured. Belcore is equally annoyed by the young man’s seemingly intoxicated state. The sergeant learns he will be called back to duty quite soon and pressures Adina to marry him that very day. Nemorino begs her to wait a little longer – he needs more time for the enchanted brew to work its magic – but Adina accepts the proposal.
Scene one – Adina’s farmhouse Adina observes that Nemorino is missing from her wedding feast – without his adoring presence, her victory will be only half complete. Dr. Dulcamara is certainly there, heartily enjoying the refreshments before he escapes. He sings a song in honor of his hostess, and Adina chimes in, clearly enjoying the flattery.
Nemorino arrives presently, still distraught over the rapidly approaching marriage. Dulcamara suggests he double the dose and offers another bottle of the elixir for sale. The young man admits he is flat broke, abruptly bringing an end to the transaction. Belcore advises him to enlist as a soldier – there are twenty scudi in it if he does. Nemorino barely hesitates.
Scene two – The village square Giannetta brings news to the village that Nemorino’s uncle has passed away, leaving his nephew a fortune. Nemorino enters, newly empowered by the two bottles of the claret-colored tonic he has consumed and unaware of the recent turn of events. All the village girls suddenly find him intriguing, and he is certain of the potion’s potency.
Adina and Dulcamara observe Nemorino’s new-found popularity, and the doctor boasts of his responsibility in the whole affair. Perhaps she would like to give the legendary love draught a try. Adina hardly needs help attracting men, but soon learns of Nemorino’s purchase and the extent of his feelings for her. She is suddenly moved by the sincerity of his noble heart.
Nemorino spied a single furtive tear in Adina’s eye as he was surrounded by other girls and is convinced she must love him. The elixir is working fabulously. Now jealous, Adina asks how he could possibly leave with the military, and Nemorino coyly complains of his idleness and need to better his condition. Nonetheless, Adina purchases his contract from Belcore, thereby canceling the conscription. She begs him to forgive the slights she has made and assures him of her love.
Belcore marches in with his soldiers and is surprised to find his fiancée in the arms of his rival. He is nonplussed by Adina’s change of heart – there are plenty of fish in the sea. Dulcamara is pleased with the success of his “magical” draught and announces to the couple Nemorino’s newly improved fortune. All clamor for the elixir of love and proclaim Dulcamara “the very phoenix of all doctors.”