Opera’s Romantic Crusader

Compared to Verdi he is seen as old-fashioned. But Donizetti was a great innovator and the creator of Italian romantic opera. 200 years after his birth, we ask were his 60 operas the death of him?

Things seem to have gone so smoothly for Gaetano Donizetti. Any composer who writes close on 60 operas is bound to have one or two flops, but apart from that… As an unknown 21-year-old he had an opera commissioned by the San Luca Theatre in Venice, and sung by a dream cast. His next was commissioned from the popular composer Johann Simon Mayr, who happened to be his teacher and withdrew to give his young pupil a chance.

This success attracted the attention of the impresario Domenico Barbaja, who asked for more operas (Barbaja ran three theatres in Naples) and gave Donizetti a job as resident composer. By the time he was 30 he was famous all over Italy. By the end of his career he could ask what fee he chose from any opera house in Europe. From the retirement of Rossini to Verdi’s maturity he was (with Bellini, who died very young) unquestionably the Italian composer.

His luck gave out; his last years were a tragedy. He died of tertiary syphilis, with dementia and paralysis. In a terrible photograph taken shortly before his death, Donizetti, barely 50, looks like an old man; he can’t raise his face to the camera and his hands are a blur, they’re trembling so violently. At the beginning of this five-year illness, when his doctors prohibited any nervous strain, including any attempt to write music (impossible: his memory had gone), he cried out in great distress that he had five operas to write, commissioned by five different theatres.

A pathetic delusion, doubly so because at the beginning of his career having a mere five operas to write would have been nothing to him.

Renewing his contract in 1827, Barbaja demanded 12 operas over the next three years. That meant an opera every three months, but Donizetti often needed far less. And of course the obvious conclusions have often been drawn: that he was at best a workaholic, at worst a hack, and no wonder that within 30 years of his death only a handful of his operas remained in the repertoire. L’Elisir d’amore, of course, the most lovable of comedies; Lucia di Lammermoor, the archetypal lyric tragedy; the brilliant farce Don Pasquale and, whenever an exceptional virtuoso singer was available, perhaps La Favorita, La Fille du Regiment (which Joan Sutherland, who excelled in it, called ‘a hoot’) or the historical tragedies Anna Bolena or Lucrezia Borgia.

Operas with sad plots were not trusted
But when we’ve listed those five we’ve already covered a huge range, greater than that of any Italian composer before Verdi (even Verdi didn’t attempt farce or saucy French comedy). Investigate his other operas, which the world has done increasingly in recent years, and you’ll find that he seldom repeated himself. And in his forties, under the stimulus of working in Paris, he began to expand his range still further. His music became richer, his gestures grander.

To us, of course, he’s bound to seem old-fashioned compared to Verdi, with his arias in the conventional forms that Verdi rebelled against, with his coloratura showpieces and his eighteenth century habit of recycling arias, even whole operas, reusing the music in an entirely different context. We find it hard to think of him as an innovator. But he was, and one of the creators of romanticism. He created Italian romantic opera in the teeth of fierce opposition. In Italy, divided into a cluster of small states, many ruled from abroad, any operatic plot was likely to be rejected by the censors or so extensively rewritten as to make nonsense of it. Operas with plots that did not end happily were distrusted. Any subject that might be interpreted as political was very risky. So were conspiracies, weapons on stage, Christian symbols, characters from the Bible and saints. Anything that might be held to promote immorality was forbidden – sinners had to be punished.

Each Italian state had its own censorship regime, but the most complex and severe was in Naples, where Donizetti made his career. His worst experience there was with Maria Stuarda, where the civil censor objected to Mary Stuart calling Elizabeth I a ‘vile bastard’, the church was outraged by a disguised priest hearing Mary’s confession and the King of Naples took offence at a crowned monarch being executed on stage, especially one who was a distant ancestor of his wife’s. The opera was banned at its dress rehearsal and the music had to be fitted to a new plot and entirely new words.

The king of opera – comic and tragic
Gaetano Donizetti was brilliant at comedy, and very good at one of the compromises that censorship promoted, the opera semi-seria, in which elements of serious drama were allowed provided there was a happy ending and the plot was seasoned with comedy. But from quite early in his career he wanted to portray bigger emotions, tragic conflicts, doomed love. The remarkable Anna Bolena was his first attempt; significantly he chose Rome for its premiere, not Naples, and it became his first international success. Lucrezia Borgia nearly didn’t reach the stage: singers were almost as powerful as censors, and the principal soprano here insisted on a brilliant final aria (in response to the tragic death of the tenor) and flatly refused to make her first appearance, as the plot demanded, in disguise – the audience might not recognise her and applaud her entry.

Somehow Donizetti coped with this, and forged a style to express emotions that until now had been impossible to express in Italian opera. A style in which a beautifully poised bel canto line can express aching tenderness or heartbreak, joy or madness by a brilliant flurry of coloratura, fate or despair by a simple darkening of harmony. Italian opera would not have survived without this new freshness and directness. Donizetti could not have survived his illness, but the effort of renewing Italian opera surely shortened his life.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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