If a measure of an opera composer’s significance were number of operas that are part of the “standard repertoire,” then Gaetano Donizetti (guy-eh-TAH-noh do-nee-TZET-tee) would be considered one of the leading such composers of all time, one of six or seven to have three or more works in that category (the others being Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Richard Strauss, and possibly Rossini). Though he was once considered the weak link among the big three bel canto (beautiful singing) composers, Donizetti’s fame has grown during the last half century. At least four operas – The Elixir of Love, The Daughter of the Regiment, Don Pasquale, and Lucia di Lammermoor – have solid places in the repertoire. In addition, interest in several other Donizetti works has grown, attributable, to a great extent, to Beverly Sills (the late world renowned soprano), whose recording of the “three queen” operas – Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux – has helped advance the popularity of these works and others.
Donizetti was born November 29, 1797 into an impoverished family in Bergamo, Italy. Fortunately, the music director of a local church, Johannes Simon Mayr, had undertaken the task of raising money for a free music school (partly out of a desire to provide singers for the church choir), and when the school opened in 1806, Donizetti was a member of the first class. At the time, Mayr himself was a well-known opera composer, though today he is remembered primarily as Donizetti’s mentor. Like most composers, Donizetti exhibited his musical skill at an early age, and it was not long before he went off to the conservatory to further develop his talents. Bologna had more to offer than music, and the handsome young man soon became quite a hit with the ladies. Biographers generally believe that it was at this time that the young composer contracted syphilis, a disease that lay dormant for a period of time but eventually caused him to have numerous bouts with poor health and led to his mental collapse and early death.
In 1816, at the age of 19, Donizetti completed the first of his seventy operas, Il Pigmalione. It was not till 1822, however, that the world first began to take note of his work with the success of the now forgotten opera seria (serious opera) Zoraide di Granata. That year was also significant because it brought about his first collaboration with Romani on the opera Chiaro e Serafina, first produced at La Scala. In the 1820s, he began writing opera buffa.
In 1828 he married Virginia Vasselli over the objections of his parents, and in a series of tragic events that were later mirrored in the life of Verdi, the couple lost three children in infancy, and Virginia herself died after nine years of marriage during a cholera epidemic, though some biographers have speculated that her death and those of the children may have been precipitated by
Donizetti’s dormant syphilis infection.
The early 1830s were pivotal in Donizetti’s career. In 1830 he collaborated with Romani on Anna Bolena, the first opera to achieve any lasting success. Two years later the pair came out with The Elixir of Love, which was an instant hit. As was the custom in days when copyright laws were weak or non-existent, Romani adapted the play Le Philtre by the French playwright Eugene Scribe (which in turn had been taken from an Italian story). The opera was written at breakneck speed, and Donizetti took no more than six weeks to compose the music. He claimed it took two weeks, but he was known at times to have exaggerated the speed at which he worked.
Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), adapted from a novel by Sir Walter Scott, was another major hit, and throughout his lifetime this remained the single most popular Italian opera ever written. In some ways it became the quintessential Italian opera. When characters in the French novel Madame Bovary and the Russian novel Anna Karenina attend the opera, Lucia is what they see.
The death of his wife in 1837 and his own declining health caused him to fall into deep depression, but fortunately for both him and us he was able to fight through it, perhaps using music as a form of therapy. He soon moved to Paris and composed a number of operas in French for the various opera companies there, most notably La Favorite and La Fille du Régiment, both in 1840. Paris also housed a company devoted to Italian opera, and it was there that Don Pasquale was first produced in 1847. Most critics consider this work, with its brilliant ensembles, to be Donizetti’s masterpiece, though the public seems to prefer The Elixir of Love. There were rumors that during his Paris years Donizetti had a brief affair with Giuseppina Streponi, later to become Verdi’s second wife.
During the 1840s he moved between Paris and Vienna, but by the middle of the decade his illness began to affect his brain, and he sank into paranoia, delusional behavior and paralysis. He was at first institutionalized in Paris, though his relatives eventually arranged for him to be transported home, where he died April 8, 1848.
As the first of the three major composers of the bel canto era, Donizetti has been given credit for advances in the development of orchestral writing for opera. With characters such as Dulcamara and Don Pasquale, he also helped advance the art of composing for the basso buffo. Several critics have commented on the depth of feeling exhibited in his female characters, as contrasted to the stock types found in Rossini’s operas. His brilliant ensemble writing was unsurpassed in his lifetime.
Known as a “singer’s composer,” Donizetti believed that the voice rather than the orchestra was most important in opera, and, like many other Italians, he believed in the supremacy of beautiful melody, which even in his lifetime was coming under attack. He once commented, “The German student says: ‘Ah, here there is too much rhythm! Ah! Here there is too much melody!…But I will not ever say, however, as various people do: that that which is regularly rhythmical, is not sublime.”