Ah, by Bacchus, with this aria I shall receive universal applause. People will say to me, “Bravo maestro!”
I, in a very modest manner, shall walk about with bowed head; I’ll have rave reviews…I can become immortal…My mind is vast, my genius swift… And at composing, a thunderbolt am I.
Call it prophecy, foreshadowing, or an unusually accurate sense of self; this is impressive foresight for a fourteen year old boy. Donizetti wrote it in a moment of exhilaration over an upcoming school vacation, excited about having free time to compose without distraction. This poem shows how clearly his sights were set at an early age, and much of what he predicted came true. “Swift” describes his writing style. He was truly a “thunderbolt” at composing…75 operas in only 28 years, 16 symphonies, 19 quartets, 193 songs, 45 duets, 3 oratorios, 28 cantata…the list goes on. And he certainly had some “rave reviews,” albeit a bit late and not as many as he might have liked. “Universal applause” for him continues today, especially in light of the resurgence of bel canto operas in the last 40 years.
Gaetano Maria Donizetti was born in Bergamo, a small town in northern Italy, on November 29, 1797 to a poor family of limited means. Fortunately his talent was recognized early in his life, and his training was considered as good as any. He began his early musical education under several teachers, including the famous opera composer Simon Mayr, and later, in Bologna, under the renowned teacher Padre Mattei. Donizetti’s father insisted that his son return to Bergamo and support himself by giving music lessons, but Gaetano disliked the life of a music teacher and decided to enlist in the army. While stationed with his regiment in Venice, Donizetti found time for composition; his first opera, Enrico, Conte di Borgogna, had a successful premiere in 1818. His second opera, Zoraide de Granata (1822), was so well received that Donizetti was discharged from the army and exempted from any further military service so that he could devote himself completely to music.
In order to support himself, Donizetti accepted every commission that came along. He was an extremely hard worker, composing daily from 7 a.m. to late afternoon, and he became known for his dependability to produce within a tight schedule. Often completing three or four operas a year, he was determined to master the many varied types and genres of opera popular in Italy. He aimed to produce spontaneous, interesting new works that would satisfy the audience’s demands for freshness and originality, yet not compromise his own artistic ambitions. Because of his extreme haste, Donizetti’s work occasionally suffers from inconsistency, feeble orchestration, and superficiality. However, his melodic genius and bouncy good spirits, are always in evidence.
During the years 1822-28 he produced a string of successful operas, most notably, comedies in the classical Rossini mold, but these works are seldom heard today. The Romantic influence of Bellini is evident in Donizetti’s next operas, the most famous of which is Elisabetta al Castello di Kenilworth (1829).
In 1830, Donizetti reached his artistic maturity with Anna Bolena, and his international reputation was established. Anna, like a good many of the composer’s works, is a romanticized version of English history. Cherished by the world’s leading dramatic coloratura sopranos, the opera provides an opportunity for the ultimate display of vocal and histrionic skills.
Two years after Anna Bolena, L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love), an opera composed in 8 days, scored a success in Milan. This sentimental pastoral comedy contains many beautiful melodies, and is one of the composer’s most frequently performed works. In quick succession, Donizetti produced a series of notable operas; Il Furioso all’Isola di San Domingo (1833), Lucrezia Borgia (1833), and Maria Stuarda (1834) are the best known of these.
The year 1835 was one of failure abroad and acclaim at home. While his Marino Faliero was not well received by Parisian audiences, Donizetti triumphed in Naples with Lucia di Lammermoor. Perhaps the composer’s most popular work, Lucia is a mixture of Romantic melodrama and Rossinian floridness. Coloratura sopranos delight in the pyrotechnics of the “Mad Scene,” while the second-act sextet is certainly an example of Donizetti at his best.
Another of Donizetti’s operas that is still performed today is Roberto Devereux, composed in 1837; the role of Queen Elizabeth is one of the greatest dramatic challenges for a coloratura soprano in all of opera. Several years later, the composer had a run-in with Italy’s political censors, so he traveled to Paris, where La Fille du Régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment) and La Favorite (completed in 1840) were well received; the former, though sung in French, is a thoroughly Italian comedy, while the latter is a typical example of French grand opera. For Vienna, the composer then wrote Linda di Chamounix (1842) and Maria di Rohan (1843). Linda, the better known of the two, is an opera semiseria, combining comedy, romance, and pathos.
Donizetti’s early operas were often written to accommodate the talents of a particular singer, with pages of purely vocalistic writing that severely hampered the drama. As he matured, however the composer’s dramatic instincts began to take precedence over sheer vocal display. By the time he completed his last well-known opera, Don Pasquale (1843), his mastery of the drama was complete; this bubbly, brittle comedy ranks as one of the greatest examples of opera buffa ever written.
While Donezetti’s professional life was quite successful, his personal life was filled with tragedy. None of his three children survived more than three or four days after birth, and his beloved wife Virginia died tragically in 1837 at the age of 29, during an outbreak of cholera. It was a blow from which Donizetti never recovered. He battled frequent bouts of depression and insanity, and in 1845 he suffered a stroke that left him completely paralyzed. Death came as a welcome relief on April 8, 1848. Italy, as well as the entire musical world, mourned the loss of this gentle, even-tempered man and gifted musician.
The composer also played an invaluable role in the development of Italian opera, planting the seeds that enabled opera to flourish in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Donizetti, to a much greater extent than Rossini and Bellini, was to exert a tremendous influence on the operas of Giuseppe Verdi. The composer, though, will always be best remembered for the rich musical catalogue of his own works; L’Elisir d’Amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Fille du Régiment, and Don Pasquale have never left the repertory, and the recently renewed interest in music of the bel canto period has led opera companies to bring new life to many of his other stage works.
Compiled from New York City Opera teachopera.org and Fort Worth Opera 2000 Study Guide.