Not so long ago the general impression of the world of Italian opera in the first half of the 19th century held that it was dominated by a triple-headed composer named Rossini-Bellini-Donizetti, whose composite efforts were (deservedly) sent packing by the greater art of Verdi. That any of these earlier works cropped up occasionally was explicable only as the whim of some prima donna too lazy to face up to a more serious musical challenge. Fortunately such critical condescension is less common today.
After the era of Puccini and Richard Strauss new operas more rarely succeeded in establishing themselves in the repertoires of major opera houses. To provide novelty to their offerings, a series of notable revivals of scores by Rossini and Bellini permitted a fairer and better-balanced view of their output. This re-examination was particularly beneficial to Donizetti, who had been frequently accused of writing too much. With close to 70 operas to his credit, comparable to the combined output of Rossini, Bellini and Verdi, and all of them written during a career that lasted less than 30 years, the charge that Donizetti was compulsively facile requires examination.
Realities of circumstance conditioned the course of his career. In 1815, there was no such thing as an established repertory; all the Italian audiences of the day wanted were novelties or recent successes from some other town. A composer was hired by the impresario to rehearse his work, being sure it was suited to the talents of the particular cast, and personally to conduct the first three performances. The singers engaged for a particular season were few, sufficient to populate a small cast, along with a handful of understudies. For his efforts a composer would receive pay that was only a fraction of that given to the prima donna and the tenor. Even if his new work was a success, there was no assurance he could profit from it, as there was scant protection of copyright then in Italy. Unless a composer had a lucrative appointment at some institution or the support of a wealthy mistress, he had to depend on frequent contracts for new operas to survive. Under circumstances that could easily defeat a less talented or motivated composer, Donizetti survived and, after a period of apprenticeship, flourished.
Donizetti was fortunate to receive the finest musical training then available in Italy, first at a free school in Bergamo run by Johann Simon Mayr, a leading opera composer of the day, and then in Bologna under the tutorship of Padre Mattei, who had taught Rossini. Particularly from Mayr, whom Donizetti revered as a second father, he was trained to write copiously in many forms. The majority of his non-operatic compositions – psalms, cantatas, reams of chamber music – date from this apprentice period.
He was 24 when he made a most favourable impression in Rome with Zoraide di Grenata, his seventh stage work. This success won him a position in Naples where he was engaged to compose several new works a year, as well as preparing operas by other composers for performance. Naples would remain the hub of his activity for the next 16 years.
From the first, the Neapolitan public recognised Donizetti’s versatility. He demonstrated an unusual competence in a variety of genres, everything from Neapolitan farces to parody (as in Le convenienze teatrali), social comedy (as in Il giovedì grasso), a biblical subject (Il diluvio universale), historical drama (as in L’esule di roma and Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth), and tragedy (Imelda de’Lambertazzi). This versatility stems from Donizetti’s drive to explore and expand a full range of dramatic possibilities.
Early on he recognised the almost stultifying power of the strict political and religious censorship then operative in every region of the still divided Italy. In post-Congress-of-Vienna Europe the emphasis was on maintaining the status quo of the anciens régimes. Donizetti’s first attempt to compose a tragic work, Gabriella di Vergy (1869), he wrote as an exercise during a period when Italian opera houses were closed for the period of mourning for a pope. In 1825 the Neapolitan board of censors’ reluctance to permit a character’s on-stage death meant that this Gabriella did not stand a prayer of being produced. Donizetti’s dramatic instincts were strong, and he kept pressing against the imposed limitations, pressure that would land him in the censors’ bad graces on several occasions.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, he took an active, and on occasion a directive, role in the preparation of the librettos set. With the tide of early Romanticism that swept over impressionable Italy in the 1820s and increasingly in the 1830s, Donizetti found ways to deal with tragic royal figures. While to place a Catholic sovereign in mortal peril would be found offensive, as he would discover with his difficulties over Maria Stuarda, there were no objections to condemning a Protestant queen, as in Anna Bolena, the score that provided the foundation for Donizetti’s international career. The desirability of British subjects did not depend exclusively upon the current vogue for Scott and Byron, but upon the fact that they were dealt with less stringently by the censors than plots based in Italy or Spain.
Donizetti’s gifts as an opera composer shine in a variety of ways. He wrote very well for voices, and indeed he worked with a generation that included such gifted singers as Pasta, Rubini, Grisi, Persiani, Unger, Ronzi di Begnis, Duprez, Tamburini, Ronconi and Lablache. Since the survival of an opera depended chiefly on its initial reception, a significant part of the preparation for the premiere would involve him adjusting the music of a particular role to the strengths of the singer who would fill it. Thus we find the roles created by Fanny Persiani – Rosmonda, Lucia and Pia de’ Tolomei – emphasise pathos as well as virtuosity, while those associated with the dramatic intensity of a Ronzi de Begnis – Fausta, Gemma di Vergy and the Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux – have a vigorous impulsiveness and a certain grandeur that is distinctive. The role of Edgardo in Lucia was created around the tenor Duprez, and his importance to the drama gives him the final scene, not the prima donna. Here the cabaletta, ‘Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali’, is notable not only for its intensely elegiac tone, even though it is in a major key, but for the effective way the traditional structure is modified to intensify the drama.
Donizetti’s comedies, the most famous of them being L’elisir d’amore, La fille du régiment and Don Pasquale, must be ranked among his finest achievements. They retain a freshness and sparkle undimmed by the passage of time. One of the secrets of his success with opera buffa was his understanding that without some touch of pathos comedy too readily seems heartless. Undoubtedly his most famous tenor aria, ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from Act II of L’elisir injects just this note of pathos, and it contains one of the most irresistible modulations from the minor key to its tonic major to be found anywhere. In La fille du régiment, ‘Il faut partir’ expressing Marie’s tender leave-taking of her regimental fathers, provides a similar balance to that subject. To my mind the most effective of all such moments occurs in Act III of Don Pasquale, when the young Norina, the pretended bride, slaps the old man’s face. (‘E’ finita, Don Pasquale’), leaving him to confront his disillusionment at the apparent failure of his non-marriage. The sheer humanity of Donizetti’s operatic comedies is their most attractive feature. On some of the earlier comedies, when Donizetti’s inspiration may not be out of the topmost drawer, his innate good taste prevents him lapsing into the laboriousness encountered in the works of some of his contemporaries.
One of the qualities that early critics often praised Donizetti for was his gift for articulating complicated and powerful ensembles, identifying this ability as a sign he was a student of Mayr. The sextet from Act II of Lucia is the best-known example of Donizetti’s gift in this direction. These ensembles involve the musical expansion of a moment of dramatic conflict, permitting its full resonance to emerge. Edgardo’s irruption of the scene of Lucia’s signing the marriage contract is just such an expanded moment. The beautiful larghetto of the first finale of Il furioso is an ensemble deserving of greater exposure. A more inward moment of dramatic expression occurs in the finale to Act I of Anna Bolena, where the queen has been caught in a compromising position, tension heightened by Smeton’s ill-timed revelation that he carries the queen’s miniature on his person. The contrasting emotions of the characters – Seymour’s guilty sympathy, Percy’s shamefacedness, Anna’s awareness of looming disaster and Enrico’s fury – are all eloquently manifested. A surprisingly influential ensemble is the canonic quintet in the confrontation scene between the queens of Scotland and England. Maria Stuarda was banned by the censors very shortly after its premiere in Milan in 1835; then it seemed that the opera had no future. Yet in Verdi’s Nabucco, introduced in Milan in 1842, there is a canonic ensemble that inevitably reminds one of Donizetti’s precedent.
The international phase of Donizetti’s career took wing when he moved from Naples to Paris in the autumn of 1838, armed with a contract to compose three scores for the Opéra. But he did not confine his efforts to that august stage; besides his Italian works put on at the Théatre Italien, he made a French version, Lucie de Lammermoor, for the Théatre de la Renaissance and then La fille for the Opéra-Comique. His first work for the Opéra was Les martyrs, an expansion of Poliuto, which had been banned in Naples. Later in 1840, he salvaged a score L’ange de Nisida, which had been left in limbo when the management of the Renaissance declared bankruptcy, converting it into La favorite, his most enduring success at the Opéra. His third there, Dom Sébastien, was compromised by its gloomy plot, but the powerful ‘Marche funèbre’ found echoes in the music of Liszt and Mahler.
Besides his Parisian career, Donizetti was offered the direction of the Italian season at Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater. Here he composed two of his most detailed scores, Linda di Chamounix and Maria da Rohan. In both of these, but especially in Maria di Rohan, the dynamic tension develops to such a degree that it anticipates moments of Ponchielli and Puccini. He was rewarded for these efforts with the title of Hofkapellmeister, but the decline of his health and its accompanying mental incapacity made for a tragic conclusion to a notable career.