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Gaetano Donizetti: Gaetano Donizetti (b. Bergamo, 29 Nov 1797; d. Bergamo, 8 April 1848).
Gaetano Donizetti came from a large family, his father being a tradesman in the provincial north Italian town of Bergamo, who became porter to the civic Monte di Pieta or pawnshop when Gaetano was eleven years old. There were six children, two of whom, Gaetano and his elder brother Giuseppe, took up musical careers. (Giuseppe became a bandsman in Napoleon's army, and ended his days as Chief of Music to the Ottoman Armies, with the title of Gaetano Donizetti Pasha.) It seems most likely that the family moved to Bergamo from elsewhere in Lombardy sometime during the 18th century, and that there is no truth in the rather engaging story that Gaetano Donizetti's grandfather was a Scottish soldier named Donald or Don Izett who drifted to Italy and italianised his name!
When the young Gaetano showed that he had some talent for music, his father allowed him to study at the local Musical Institute in Bergamo. Here he was especially fortunate to have as his first teacher, a distinguished composer, Johann Simon Mayr. Mayr, a Bavarian, was Professor of Composition at the Institute, and had composed a number of highly successful Italian operas, among them Saffo (1794), Ginevra di Scozia (1801) and Alonso e Cora (1803). The young Gaetano Donizetti came under Mayr's influence, and was to admit his debt to the elder composer for the rest of his life. He was soon - sufficiently advanced in his studies to be sent on to the Liceo Filarmonico in Bologna, to complete his studies under another famous teacher, Stanislao Mattei, a composer of church music and himself a pupil of Padre Martini. By the time he was twenty, Gaetano Donizetti was back in Bergamo, uncertain how next to proceed. His father strongly urged him to take up an academic career, but unwilling to do so he began instead to compose music for a number of local societies, usually amateur. Several string quartets, as well as choral and instrumental pieces, were written at this time.
In 1818, at the age of twenty-one, Gaetano Donizetti received his first operatic commission. This came from Paolo Zancla, an impresario who was visiting Bergamo with a touring opera company, and who required a new work for his season at the Teatro San Luca in Venice. To a libretto written for him by his friend and fellow student Bartolomeo Merelli (who was later to become a famous impresario), Gaetano Donizetti composed an opera, Enrico di Borgogna, which, if not an unalloyed triumph in Venice, was at least sufficiently appreciated by its audiences for Zancla subsequently to commission a one-act farce with music by Merelli and Gaetano Donizetti. This was performed the following month, after which Gaetano Donizetti returned to Bergamo and to the composition of a great deal of miscellaneous music for various occasions, as well as operas, for he now began to receive commissions from theatres as a result of the Venice operas. It was with one of these, Zoraide di Granata, commissioned by the Teatro Argentina in Rome, and produced there in 1822, that Gaetano Donizetti made his decisive breakthrough into the career of a full-time professional composer of opera, for Zoraide was acclaimed with great enthusiasm by its first Roman audiences. After the third performance, Gaetano Donizetti and his leading tenor left the theatre in a carriage to the accompaniment of a loud military band along a route illuminated with torches in the composer's honour. Of the opera, the weekly Notizie del giorno wrote:
A new and very happy hope is rising for the Italian musical theatre. The young maestro Gaetano Donizetti, a pupil of the most famous professors of music, has launched himself strongly in his opera truly seria, Zoraide di Granata. Unanimous, sincere, universal was the applause that he justly collected from the capacity audience, which decreed a triumph for his work. Every piece was received with particular pleasure.
Other critics praised Gaetano Donizetti's fluent melodic gift, his knowledge of orchestration, and the confident manner in which he handled his ensembles. His name now became known to opera houses throughout Italy, and invitations to compose operas began to pour in. For the next few years, indeed for the remainder of his active professional life, he produced two, three or even four operas a year, many of them for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, but others for Rome, Milan, Palermo, Florence, Venice, and in due course Vienna and Paris.
The twenty-six operas which Gaetano Donizetti composed between Zoraide di Granata in 1822 and Anna Bolena in 1830 contain very few titles at all familiar to modern audiences. Attempts have been made to revive one or two in Italy, and occasionally elsewhere, but the works themselves have failed to stay alive. It seems safe to say that Anna Bolena is the earliest Gaetano Donizetti opera likely to be encountered in major opera houses today, though small theatres and festivals have been known to mount such works as L'aio nell imbarazzo, Il borgomastro di Saardam and Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali.
In 1830, the prolific Gaetano Donizetti composed five operas, of which Anna Bolena, based on a libretto by Romani about Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, was the last. Produced in Milan in December of that year, it immediately made Gaetano Donizetti's name internationally famous. He was able to write to his wife, whom he had married in 1828, that the opera had been given 'a reception which could not possibly have been improved upon. Success, triumph, delirium.' His younger contemporary Bellini had already made his international reputation, and now Italy had a second composer to represent her abroad. Anna Bolena was produced in London, Paris, Madrid, Vienna and elsewhere in the following two or three seasons, and for many years to come was regarded as its composer's masterpiece. In London, the bass Lablache had one of his greatest successes as Henry VIII. Among the opera's most enthusiastic admirers was the great republican leader Giuseppe Mazzini, who wrote of it:
The individuality of the characters, so barbarously neglected by the servile imitators of Rossini's lyricism, is painted with rare energy and religiously observed in many of Gaetano Donizetti's works. Who has not felt in the musical expression of Henry VIII the severe, tyrannical, and artificial language required by the story at that point? And when Lablache fulminates these words: 'Salira d'Inghilterra sul trono/Altra donna piu degna d'affetto' (There will come to the throne of England another woman more worthy of affection), who has not felt his spirit shrink, who has not understood all of tyranny in that moment, who has not seen all the trickery of that Court, which has shown that Anne Boleyn will die? And Anne, furthermore, is the chosen victim, whom the libretto - and history too, whatever others may say - depicts. Her song is a swan song that foresees death, the song of a tired person touched by a sweet memory of love.
Gaetano Donizetti had now proved himself an all-round composer, as willing to compose farce and opera buffa as he was to provide those romantic operas, often on historical subjects, which were enormously popular. His next four operas, three of them written for Naples and one for Milan, include nothing which was able to equal the success of Anna Bolena. But in 1832, for the Teatro della Canobbiana, Milan, he composed an opera to a libretto by Romani which was based on a French comedy, Le Philtre by Eugene Scribe. This was L'Elisir d'amore, which remains to this day one of the most enchanting operas of its kind. Though a comedy, it is not enfeebled by the kind of stock patter music which, it must be confessed, Gaetano Donizetti was inclined to churn out by the yard in some of his comic operas. The essence of L'Elisir d'amore is its warm-hearted melodic generosity. Its characters are credible, and their feelings easy to sympathise with. Even the gullible villagers who listen entranced while the literate heroine reads them the story of Tristan and Isolde, and who queue up to purchase the quack Dulcamara's remedy for all ills, are affectionate caricatures not entirely divorced from reality. Gaetano Donizetti's gift for romantic and expressive melody was given full play in L'Elisir d'amore, and it is hardly-surprising that the opera was an immediate success. The Gazzetta privilegiata di Milano wrote enthusiastically, 'Everything is beautiful, very beautiful, and was well applauded. To say which number is better than another is not an easy task.' And Gaetano Donizetti wrote to his old teacher Mayr, 'The Gazzetta reviews L'Elisir d'amore and says too many good things; too many, believe me, too many!'
Though Gaetano Donizetti was only thirty-five, he had now composed forty operas. He was never to relax his manic pace of composition, but it is just possible to discern that rather more care was taken with the composition of those from L'Elisir d'amore onwards. Certainly, the proportion of successes to failures is higher after 1832. There are, it is true, excellent operas by Gaetano Donizetti which have not yet come back into the repertoire, but it is unlikely that they include any of those he composed in the 1820s.
Immediately after L'Elisir d'amore, Gaetano Donizetti composed a bloodthirsty melodrama of suicide and attempted filicide, called Sancia di Castiglia, which was received with great enthusiasm at its first performance in Naples, the composer and his singers being repeatedly called out and cheered. But the initial enthusiasm soon waned, and eventually Sancia di Castiglia disappeared completely from view. Eight weeks after its premiere, another new Gaetano Donizetti opera reached the stage, this time in Rome. The opera, Il furioso all' isola di San Domingo, based on an episode in Cervantes's Don Quixote, was a success: although it has not so far surfaced in the Gaetano Donizetti revival of the past fifteen years, it is probably well worth the consideration of an enterprising festival, for contemporary reviews speak of the originality of its dramatic characterisation, and it certainly continued to hold the stage for some years. One Roman journal wrote:
It can be said that the music as a whole is compounded of original beauties and is worthy of so distinguished a musician. The concourse of the public, which from the first evening on has never failed to attend in large numbers, is the most valid proof for demonstrating this universal approval.
Parisina, based on the poem of that name by Byron, and produced in Florence in 1833, was for many years Gaetano Donizetti's own favourite among his operas, but Torquato Tasso, produced in Rome later the same year, is a considerably more distinguished work. Based loosely on incidents in the life of the great 16th-century epic poet, it manages to combine elements of the old opera seria or serious opera with the lightness of touch of comic opera. A semi-professional performance in London in the 1970s revealed Torquato Tasso as one of Gaetano Donizetti's most fascinating scores. 1833 was a vintage year for the composer, for in addition to Ilfurioso, Parisina and Torquato Tasso, it saw the birth of Lucrezia Borgia, in which that notorious member of the Borgia family was given romanticised treatment by Romani, who adapted Victor Hugo's play for Gaetano Donizetti. Hugo was not pleased with the opera, but the general opinion was that it was one of Gaetano Donizetti's finest. A discordant note, however, was struck by one of the most influential Roman critics who wrote of the indifferent quality of Romani's libretto, and then went on to say that 'the composer has kept himself hidden, leaving the singers to fabricate the music, so empty is it of inspiration and novelty'.
The year 1834 found Gaetano Donizetti exploring English history with Rosamonda d'lnghilterra, whose heroine is the ill-fated mistress of Henry II, and Maria Stuarda, whose heroine is Mary, Queen of Scots, an equally ill-fated victim of Elizabeth I. Maria Stuarda is the most impressive of Gaetano Donizetti's operas based on English history, and has survived to find a place in the modern operatic repertoire. It was, however, with historical fiction from the British Isles, rather than historical fact, that Gaetano Donizetti was soon to achieve his greatest success, when he composed what is still regarded as his finest opera, Lucia di Lammermoor. Based on Sir Walter Scott's novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, Lucia was composed for the San Carlo Theatre, Naples, and its premiere was one of the greatest events in the history of that theatre. For most of the evening, many people in the audience were in tears, so great was the expressive intensity of Gaetano Donizetti's music. Lucia's mad scene, which one might call the apotheosis of the mad scene, is certainly one of the most impressive pieces of bravura vocal writing ever offered to a dramatic coloratura soprano, and its sentimental melodies have by no means lost their power to affect audiences. Lucia di Lammermoor has remained a favourite opera in Italy since its first performance. Its popularity outside Italy has tended to depend upon the availability of a prima donna capable of managing the coloratura passages and of moving an audience in the gentler music.
It was only a week after the premiere of Lucia that the news of Bellini's death at the age of thirty-four reached Naples. Gaetano Donizetti was deeply shocked by the premature death of his young rival, and composed in his memory a Requiem Mass which, though it is hardly one of his major compositions, is a strangely beguiling piece of music, fittingly operatic in style. While Gaetano Donizetti was at work on his next opera, his father died. He did not attend the funeral for he was too busy, not only with the composition of Belisario but with supervising the first authentic production of Maria Stuarda in Milan, for in Naples the libretto had been bowdlerised. In any case, Gaetano Donizetti's temperament was one which tended to avoid painful experiences. Perhaps, had he faced them, his music would have been the richer for it, but then he would have been a different person. Gaetano Donizetti shares with Schubert a melodic fecundity, though he lacks the Viennese master's humanity. It is this lack of humanity, rather than differences in form and structure, which also distinguishes Gaetano Donizetti from his great successor Verdi.
Shortly after Belisario had been successfully launched, Gaetano Donizetti's mother died, and his wife was delivered prematurely of a still-born daughter. He was now teaching at the Conservatorium in Naples, but found time to write both the libretto and the music of a oneact comic opera, Il campanello di notte. In May 1837, when the Director of the Conservatorium died, Gaetano Donizetti hoped to succeed him. Due to various intrigues, however, he could neither get his appointment confirmed nor his resignation accepted. He continued to compose new operas, among them L'assedio di Calais (1836), Pia de' Tolomei (1837) and, another of his forays into English history, Roberto Devereux, Conte d'Essex (1837). Maria di Rudenz, written for the Teatro Fenice, Venice in 1838, was a failure, probably because of its gruesome and blood-thirsty plot, and was taken off after two performances.
It was with a comic opera, and in another country, that Gaetano Donizetti was to prove he had not lost his touch. His wife had died in the process of giving birth to another still-born child, and although he continued to live in Naples for a further two years Gaetano Donizetti found his life there lonely and without direction or purpose. After another censorship quarrel with the authorities over an opera called Poliuto, he began to turn his thoughts towards Paris, having received invitations to compose for the Paris Opera. He took up residence in Paris, adapted Poliuto for production in French as Les Martyrs, and also worked on Le Due d'Albe, an opera which was not produced until thirty-four years after his death.
The first completely new French opera by Gaetano Donizetti to be staged was Lafille du regiment, at the Opera-Comique in February 1840. Though the first night was sabotaged by organised hostility on the part of French composers and their supporters, and the performance was greeted with a sneering review by Berlioz, nevertheless Gaetano Donizetti's enchanting and light-hearted comedy proved immensely popular with the public, and continued to hold the stage in France until the end of the century and beyond. As La figlia del reggimento it was equally successful in Italy, and even today retains its power to delight.
Some months later, another Gaetano Donizetti opera, this time a serious work, was produced in Paris. This was La favorite, whose final act, one of the most dramatic and tightly constructed in Gaetano Donizetti's entire oeuvre, is said to have been composed in less than four hours. After the production of La favorite, Gaetano Donizetti travelled a great deal. For Rome, he composed Adelia which was staged in February 1841; for Milan he wrote Maria Padilla, produced at La Scala in December of the same year; and in March 1842 he went to Vienna, whose principal opera house was under the management of his old friend and colleague, Merelli. For Vienna Gaetano Donizetti wrote Linda di Chamounix, a romantic opera which had an enormously successful reception. Honours were heaped upon him, and he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Austrian Emperor, his acceptance of which post made him several enemies in Italy. Returning to Paris, Gaetano Donizetti produced another comic opera for that city, but this time an Italian one. Don Pasquale, the very epitome of Italian opera bujfa, was staged at the Theatre-Italien in January 1843. It quickly established itself in the repertoire, and is as popular today as when it was new. Generally thought of as one of the three greatest Italian comic operas of the 19th century (the others being Rossini's Barber of Seville and Verdi's Falstaff); Don Pasquale is certainly one of Gaetano Donizetti's most endearing and enduring works.
It was shortly after the triumphant first performances of Don Pasquale that the early symptoms of the illness which was to prove fatal to Gaetano Donizetti began to appear. He had gone to Vienna where his new opera Maria di Rohan was staged in June 1843, but he found that recurring bouts of fever prevented him from working with his usual concen-tration. By November, when he was back in Paris rehearsing Dom Sebastien which opened at the Opera on the 13th November, it was obvious that he was seriously ill, for he would become incoherent in mid-sentence, fly into violent rages for no immediately apparent reason, or exhibit other signs of mental instability. Though he returned to Vienna and continued to work for another year, his condition went on deteriorating until his final collapse into paralysis and insanity, the last stages of a venereal disease. His final two years were spent in an almost comatose condition, until he was taken home to Bergamo to die in 1848.
Gaetano Donizetti is important as the leading Italian opera composer of the 1830s and 1840s, spanning the gap between Rossini and Bellini whom early retirement and premature death respectively had removed from the scene, and the young Verdi who was, as it were, waiting in the wings. Of Gaetano Donizetti's more than seventy operas, nine or ten are works which have survived to become a valuable part of the international opera repertory. As the work of reassessment continues, more of the operas of this uneven, prolific composer are being found worthy of revival.
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