Nemorino, a naive village boy, is doing what he has been doing since his childhood: admiring Adina, a beautiful farm owner – but from a safe distance. Nemorino’s devotion never fails to provoke annoyance and hostility in the capricious lady. He is watching her as she sits reading the legend of Tristan and Isolde, and the idea of a potion fuelling undying love arouses such irrepressible hilarity in her that she reads the story to her farm workers.
When Sergeant Belcore arrives in the village on a recruitment drive, he immediately sets about courting Adina. Nemorino, hurt by her apparent interest in the soldier, declares his love yet again. But she is discouraging. In her fickleness she wants a new lover every day, and she recommends the same course of action to him.
Dulcamara, a quack doctor, arrives in town selling an all-purpose tonic. It occurs to Nemorino that the pedlar must stock some of Isolde’s love potion. Dulcamara sells Nemorino a half-consumed bottle of Bordeaux and tells the boy that he will feel the effects of the elixir within 24 hours – by which time the doctor will be long gone.
Nemorino begins to sip the potion. When Adina turns up, he feigns indifference, certain as he is that she will be wracked with love for him within a matter of hours. She is infuriated by his aloofness, and in a fit of pique promises to marry Belcore in six days’ time. Nemorino remains unperturbed; after all, the potion only takes 24 hours to take effect. An unexpected dispatch, however, requires Belcore to decamp the following day. Adina impetuously promises to marry him that evening. Nemorino begs Adina to delay the wedding. Adina, irritated by his manner, invites the entire village to the celebrations. Nemorino collapses on the ground in despair.
The wedding party is in full swing. Dulcamara gets Adina to sing a duet with him about a rich old senator who tries to court a pretty gondolier girl. To Adina’s annoyance, Nemorino is nowhere to be seen at the festivities. Everyone follows the wedding couple out to witness the signing of the contract: only Dulcamara decides to stay behind to sample the buffet.
When Nemorino does turn up, very depressed, Dulcamara prescribes another dose of the elixir. The boy, however, has no more money. He decided to join Belcore’s squadron and runs to buy another bottle with the commission.
The village girls catch wind that Nemorino’s rich uncle has just died, leaving him a fortune. They begin to squabble over the boy’s affections. Nemorino, by now very drunk, believes that he is witnessing the magical effect of the elixir. Adina discovers herself rattled by Nemorino’s new-found popularity with the opposite sex. When she learns he has enlisted in order to win her, she realizes that she has loved Nemorino all along.
Dulcamara cannily tries to sell her a bottle of elixir with which to win him
back, but Adina professes full confidence in her own powers of attraction.
Nemorino has observed Adina’s distress on seeing him with the village girls, and now knows that she loves him. Adina returns with his recruitment form, which she has bought back from Belcore, and she finally confesses her feelings for Nemorino.
Belcore begins looking for another girlfriend and the villagers fall over themselves to buy Dulcamara’s magical elixir, which the pedlar now claims makes a person not only irresistible, but rich too.