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Gaetano Donizetti
Gaetano Donizetti


Gaetano Donizetti

Gaetano Donizetti’s life bears more than a passing resemblance to an operatic plot. The curtain rises on a humble birth and years of drudgery. Then there is a dizzying ascent to greatness, before a final fall into madness, the result of syphilis rather than heartbreak. The composer celebrated for writing the famous ‘mad scene’ in nineteenth century opera had lost his reason and was unable even to recognise his own music. Donizetti was born in Bergamo, the son of a man who rose no higher than holding the door at the local pawnshop. He was fortunate enough to find a patron in Simon Mayr, the maestro di capella at Bergamo cathedral. It was Mayr who overcame Donizetti’s father’s conviction that it ‘was impossible that one should compose’. Mayr secured the young Donizetti’s first professional commission, the melodrama Enrico di Borgogna, given in Venice in November 1818. So began 12 long years of apprenticeship. The composer learnt his craft first in the opera houses of northern Italy and then, from 1822, in Naples. Six years later he was appointed the director of Naples' royal theatres. At last, with Anna Bolena, his 31st opera, came Donizetti’s first palpable hit. Its premiere in Milan in 1830 starred two of the most admired singers of the age, Giuditta Pasta and Giovanni Rubini. Donizetti’s fascination with the Tudor dynasty continued in the operas Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda. Within a decade they had conquered Europe and crossed the Atlantic to New York and Rio de Janeiro. Donizetti composed an extraordinary 25 operas over the next eight years, among them L’Elisir d’amore (1832), a tender pastoral comedy with a hint of sadness behind its generous smile. Lucrezia Borgia was premiered a year later. Then, in 1834, came a second masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor, written for Naples. A quintessentially Romantic work with a libretto carved from Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor, it blends Gothic melodrama with vocal pyrotechnics. These are most notable in the celebrated ‘mad scene’ in the last act of the opera. The sextet at the end of the second act marks a new direction for Donizetti – a passion for drama as much as music. With Bellini and Rossini now in retirement Donizetti was ‘the sole reigning genius of Italian opera’, as the conductor Charles Mackerras later described him. Donizetti rarely turned down a commission. When time was at a premium, which it usually was, he was always ready to resurrect an earlier failure and dress it in new musical clothes. In just over 25 years he wrote more than 70 operas, 12 string quartets, seven masses, songs, piano music, motets, cantatas and psalms. If necessary he could work at breakneck speed: L’Elisir d’amore was composed in just eight days. A consummate craftsman with an ear for what audiences wanted, Donizetti shaped his music around his singers and kept the story simple. As he wrote to Jacopo Ferretti, his librettist for Torquato Tasso, ‘Success consists of doing little and making that little beautiful, and of not singing a lot and boring the audience.’ Although by inclination a radical, Donizetti developed the forms that he had inherited from Rossini rather than reinvented them. Yet the operas that he wrote for Naples and Milan from the 1830s mark a change in direction, in terms of both dramatic form and vocal writing. He sought an expressive style of singing both in his serious and his comic operas that was at the service of the drama not the singer. Step by step he reduced excessive ornamentation for its own sake. In this way he sowed a harvest that Verdi was to reap in the mid−19th century, sending Italian opera off in new directions. Audiences warmed to Donizetti’s work, but the Italian authorities kept a close eye on the theatre and he caught the attention of the official censors. They worried about Lucrezia Borgia, with its warts-and-all portrait of a Pope’s daughter and a climactic blood bath. Maria Stuarda, with two queens quarrelling like fishwives, one calling the other a filthy bastard, was thought too rich for the King of Naples' taste. And Poliuto was banned for presuming to put Christianity on the stage. No wonder that Donizetti decided to shake the dust of Naples from his feet. The censors were heavy-handed. They insisted that royalty should be seen as immaculate, religion inviolable and that anything that might ‘induce loathing or disgust in the spectator’ shunned. These were the very things that a properly Romantic composer like Donizetti longed to stage. And by the late 1830s he had grown weary. Personal misfortune had struck in the loss of his parents, and then in childbirth his wife Virginia. So he moved to Paris, which at the time prided itself on being the musical capital of the world. In 1838 he accepted an invitation from Rossini to write Marino Faliero for the Théâtre-Italien. Donizetti’s first Parisian opera wasn’t quite the triumph he had hoped for. But in time he made the city his own. There were comedies, La fille du régiment and Don Pasquale (a late masterpiece), for the Opéra-Comique and the Théâtre-Italien. And at the Opéra there were Les Martyrs and Dom Sébastien. In the meantime Donizetti had been appointed Hofkapellmeister to the Hapsburgs in Vienna. ’12,000 Francs for doing nothing', he joked. He wrote two operas for Vienna, Linda di Chamonix and Linda di Rohan. The latter has a lean plot and spare musical style that exemplifies all that this composer had sought to achieve on stage. When Donizetti’s health began to fail his friends diagnosed ‘overwork’. His nephew Andrea came to Paris in January 1846, where he found his uncle irrational and unpredictable. Andrea agreed with Donizetti’s doctors that the composer was ‘no longer capable of estimating sanely the consequence of his decisions and actions’. As a consequence he was placed in a secure institution. The following year Donizetti was taken back to Bergamo, where he died in April 1848. He had completed 65 operas in just 32 years. An autopsy reported that he had died of ‘cerebro-spinal syphilis’.

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