Gaetano Donizetti was born in Bergamo in the north of Italy in 1797. Despite his father’s wish that he become a lawyer, he managed to study with Simone Mayr, a German composer who had settled in Bergamo and was renowned for both church music and operas, most notably Ginevra di Scozia and Medea in Corinto. Donizetti’s style derived in part from that of Rossini, then the most popular composer in Italy, but was also influenced by Mayr’s notions of German counterpoint. His first opera, Enrico di Borgogna, appeared in 1815, and he was soon known for his extreme facility, the ease with which melodies poured from his pen. Nonetheless he did not become one of the leaders of the pack until 1830, when his Anna Bolena triumphed at La Scala with Giuditta Pasta, the leading singing actress of her day, in the title role. In 1832, Donizetti stepped in for a colleague who had failed to fulfill a contract and in two weeks managed to produce the sparkling comedy L’elisir d’amore, still one of his most popular works, to a libretto by Felice Romani based on Scribe’s Le Philtre. Lucrezia Borgia in 1833, Lucia di Lammermoor in 1835 and Roberto Devereux in 1836 cemented his reputation as the master of romantic melodrama and drove such rivals as Pacini from the field (though not for long). Maria Stuarda, in 1835, was a victim of censorship, horrified at the idea of a queen addressing another as “bastarda”; the opera was a rare failure for the great Maria Malibran, and was not revived for 123 years. In more recent times, its “dueling prima donnas” have made it a popular favorite, and it sometimes joins Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux as a “Tudor trilogy”. Lucia, however, is the best known of his tragic operas, its sextet having been called the best-known concerted passage in Italian opera, its mad scene a renowned tour de force for any coloratura soprano.
In 1835, Donizetti and his chief rival, Bellini, were summoned to the Theatre-Italien in Paris, of which Rossini was now the director, each asked to compose a work for Paris as exemplars of the new Italian style. Bellini triumphed with I Puritani — only to die in Passy the following September. Donizetti’s effort, Marino Faliero, was not so great a success, but his residence in Paris for some years gave him the opportunity to see the new Parisian style of grand opera, to absorb its methods and style. He composed operas on Scribe or Sdribe-style libretti (Le duc d’Alba, La Favorite, Dom Sebastian) for L’Opera, and operas-comiques as well (Linda di Chamounix and La fille du Regiment), while going back and forth between Paris and his positions as impresario in Naples and Vienna. In the former position he composed Poliuto, which was rejected as a Christian subject by the Neapolitan authorities, obliging him to recast it as Les Martyrs for Paris. Also at this time (1844) he composed his last triumphant success, Don Pasquale. In Italy, also, he composed Adelia, Maria Padilla and Maria di Rohan. Nor were all his works designed for prima donnas — Belisario, Torquato Tasso and Il furioso all’ isola di San Domingo displayed the talents of the great baritone Ronconi, while Marino Faliero displayed those of Rubini, the first star tenor of Italian opera.
In 1838, his beloved wife Virginia died in childbirth, probably complicated by syphilis with which Donizetti had infected her. He began to show symptoms of advanced stages of the disease in 1843, was subject to bouts of persecution mania for the next year, and in 1845 became catatonic. He was taken back to Bergamo where the armchair in which he sat, staring into space, for the next three years may still be seen in the Museo Donizettiana. He died in 1848.
In 1843, in Milan, he was instrumental in aiding the young Giuseppe Verdi to get a hearing and further contracts, and in Vienna in 1844, arranged for the first Viennese productions of his young rival’s Ernani and Nabucco. All his life, Donizetti was singularly free of the jealousies and paranoias of many creative artists, including his rivals Bellini, Pacini, Mercadante and Verdi.
As a composer he is first of all a great melodist, but he was also a master of the drama and took care that his librettists gave hims workable situations in which to display his singers to arouse maximum excitement with traditional and transformative use of melody. Such scenes as the confrontation of the Duke and Duchess in Lucrezia Borgia, the great scene of the sextet in Lucia, the intricate duet of Pasquale and Norina in Don Pasquale, and the prologue of Lucrezia Borgia are sublime dramatic constructions in which the excitement is built entirely on melody leading into melody, never letting the tension slip. Mercadante and Verdi learned a great deal from Donizetti — not least the value of a sojourn in Paris and a careful study of its theater scene.
(Contribution by Brightshadow <atsarisbornhotmail.com>.)