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Making a Comeback

Donizetti and His Operas

by William Ashbrook
Cambridge University Press, 744 pp., $37.50

Nineteenth-century Italian opera was long considered intellectually disreputable. Melodramatic plots, banal tunes over oom-pah-pah accompaniments, sopranos warbling in thirds with a flute, tenors bellowing high C’s: all show and no substance. Several works by Verdi remained in the repertory, but cognoscenti admired unequivocally his last two operas alone, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). Joseph Kerman’s influential book of the 1950s reflecting these attitudes bore the Wagnerian title: Opera as Drama.1

Of the operas written in Italy between 1800 and 1850, theaters regularly performed only Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816), Bellini’s Norma (1831), and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) and Don Pasquale (1843); sporadic revivals of other works generated little interest. Rossini was merely a composer of frivolous opera buffa, Bellini was a fountain of melancholy melodies, important primarily for their influence on Chopin, and Donizetti was scarcely worth mentioning. An era that celebrated Wagner, who wrote a single opera in four years, found Donizetti’s ability to write four operas in a single year faintly obscene.

Besides, how could one forgive these composers their popular success when the great artists of their day were condemned to face a mystified public? While receiving the music of Beethoven’s last period with indifference or even hostility, the Viennese royally feted Rossini and the Neapolitan troupe that staged his operas. Wagner, penniless in Paris, survived by making a piano-vocal reduction of the orchestral score of Donizetti’s La Favorite (1840). Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini (1838) flopped miserably just as Donizetti’s operas began to dominate every major theater in the French capital. Devotees of serious music during the first half of our century could at least look back on these aberrations of popular taste secure in the knowledge that history had exacted due recompense, assigning most Italian operas to their rightful place: dusty library shelves.

Yet the unruly past refuses to accept our reductive formulations. Since the mid-1950s there have been astonishing changes in public knowledge of the repertory of Italian opera and critical attitudes toward it. The revival of interest in Donizetti, in particular, can be dated precisely to the performances of his Anna Bolena (written in 1830) at the Teatro alla Scala of Milan during the 1957-1958 season. Conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni and staged by Luchino Visconti, the production had Maria Callas in the title role. Though heavily and sometimes irrationally cut, this Anna Bolena demonstrated that Donizetti’s operas, when well performed, generated tremendous emotional power. Much credit must go to Callas herself, who recaptured the technique of singing bel canto music expressively, rather than as arpeggios, scales, and trills displaying the vocal prodigalities of singers in costume. But behind her interpretation stood one of Donizetti’s greatest achievements: his musical portrait of Anna Bolena.

Felice Romani’s libretto explores different facets of Anna’s complex personality; Donizetti’s music transforms her into a tragic figure. As the opera begins, the melancholy Queen, whose royal husband has lost interest in her, recalls Percy, the love of her youth. She expresses her sadness in simple, tuneful periods, varied with enough coloratura to suggest a certain forcefulness in her personality. Her emotions are reawakened when she again meets Percy, who has returned from exile. In the introductory recitative to their duet, the naive Percy bursts again and again into arioso; the Queen, oppressed by her fate, is more cautious.

A traditional duet normally opens with parallel musical periods for each singer, based on parallel poetic stanzas. Though Donizetti accepts this basic procedure, he carefully differentiates the emotions of his characters. Some of their music is completely different—Percy’s fresh, florid, major opening, Anna’s dark, declaimed, minor response. Even when their melodic lines are similar, Donizetti radically alters the orchestral accompaniment to underline Anna’s terror. Such details are as essential to his dramatic and musical purposes as are the more extreme moments of tension.

The most famous of these is Anna’s “Giudici!…ad Anna!…ad Anna!… Giudici!…,” her outraged reaction to the King’s order that she be imprisoned and condemned for infidelity. The words are declaimed in the simplest possible manner on notes of the dominant harmony, with an unaccompanied dissonant ninth as the highest sustained pitch. Music and drama remain suspended as Anna realizes the implications of his words. Only then does she launch into her desperate cabaletta, “Ah! segnata è la mia sorte.” (A cabaletta is the concluding section of a multi-part aria or ensemble.) After a statement of the theme, she again pleads with the King. He turns his back on her and storms offstage. This physical rejection motivates Anna’s hysterical repetition of the theme (to which the singer would have been expected to add appropriate ornamentation), transforming an obligatory formal gesture into a moment of great intensity.

During the duet with Jane Seymour, in which the Queen discovers that her close friend is also her rival, Anna is presented first in prayer, then as an avenging spirit, and finally as a woman capable of forgiveness. The composer struggled with this piece—two early versions of its cabaletta are preserved at the Morgan Library. In its final form it is one of the most unusual duets of the period, one whose particularities of musical structure mirror the violent extremes in Anna’s feelings that are central to the dramatic situation.

At the very end of the opera Anna is about to be executed. There is no trick in the arsenal of a prima donna that Donizetti did not employ in this finale, yet each emerges from the dramatic situation: intense declamation for her recitative; sustained lyrical singing as she remembers the happy past; tender arioso phrases as she asks her page to play a melody “like the sigh of a dying heart”; a simple, folklike prayer, “Cielo, a’ miei lunghi spasimi,” based on “Home, Sweet Home” (it is difficult for Anglo-Saxon audiences to ignore the reference, yet despite it the naive emotion of the piece is touching); and finally the violent cabaletta “Coppia iniqua,” with its melodic line soaring and swooping from one register to another. Her words tell us that she will not cry for revenge in her hour of death; her music belies them. Maria Callas may have been the first singer in a century to reveal the character of Anna Bolena on the stage, but Donizetti’s music was there all along, waiting.

To this production Herbert Weinstock traced the fascination with Donizetti that resulted in his 1963 biography. Two years later William Ashbrook’s first book about the composer, Donizetti, appeared.2 These were the first extended studies of Donizetti in English, and both drew heavily on Italian sources, especially Guido Zavadini’s edition of Donizetti’s correspondence, published in 1948 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the composer’s death.3

Both books also suffered from certain unavoidable limitations. Very few of Donizetti’s operas were in print during the 1960s, even in reductions for piano and voice, and nineteenth-century sources of his music often differed widely from one another. This reflected both Donizetti’s practice of revising operas for subsequent performances with new casts and the unscrupulous editorial practices of the period. The composer’s autograph manuscripts were scattered in libraries and private collections around the world. None had been carefully examined. Even had it been possible to assure oneself of a written or printed musical source that in some sense accurately presented the score of each opera, it would have remained difficult to grasp the quality of so many different works from their notation alone. Donizetti was an eminently practical composer and his operas demand to be experienced in the theater. During the early 1960s this was only beginning to be possible.

Weinstock avoided many of these problems by limiting his attention to Donizetti’s life, a subject fascinating in itself because through Donizetti’s experiences, one can learn much about European music and society in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Born in 1797 into an impoverished family in the northern Italian city of Bergamo, Donizetti received a thorough musical education, studying first as a charity pupil with the Bavarian composer Johann Simon Mayr, who had settled in Bergamo and directed a school there. Mayr later sent the youth to Bologna, where he worked with Rossini’s old teacher, Padre Stanislao Mattei. The technical mastery thus acquired enabled Donizetti to compose quickly, a crucial skill for an opera composer who completed one commission only to begin another. His career led him from small northern theaters to the great opera houses of Rome and Naples. Though he spent many years under the shadow of Vesuvius and composed Lucia di Lammermoor for the Teatro San Carlo, the Neapolitans always considered him a northern interloper.

Real success came more slowly to Donizetti than it had to Rossini and Bellini, but by the end of the 1820s his reputation was solidly established. The enthusiastic reception in Milan of Anna Bolena, followed shortly by L’elisir d’amore (1832) and Lucrezia Borgia (1833) guaranteed him ready access to any theater. Like Rossini he mastered every operatic genre, buffa, semiseria, and seria. And partly with the assistance of Rossini, his career became international, with important posts and commissions in Paris and Vienna. The older composer acknowledged his respect for Donizetti by asking him to prepare and conduct the first Italian performances of his Stabat Mater in March 1842.

Despite these professional triumphs, Donizetti’s personal life was unhappy. He made a career in opera against the wishes of his father, who thought the boy would do better to remain in Bergamo. He and his beloved wife Virginia, daughter of a prosperous Roman household in which Donizetti sought the family ties he lacked in his own home, had two children: one lived thirteen days, the other a mere hour. Virginia herself did not long survive the birth of her second child, dying in 1837 at the age of twenty-eight. Although the cause of her death is uncertain, she may well have contracted a severe syphilitic infection from her husband. Donizetti’s own syphilis is well documented. Its early stages appeared during the 1820s; it caused his tragic mental deterioration after 1843 and his death in 1848.

Yet throughout his life his letters show him to have been a man of genuine humility, with a keen wit (indeed, he wrote some of his own comic librettos), the ability to make and cultivate deep friendships, and real empathy for the feelings of others. Particularly revealing are the letters Donizetti and Bellini wrote to friends in Italy in 1834 and 1835, when both were brought to Paris by Rossini to compose new operas for the Théâtre-Italien: Donizetti’s Marino Faliero and Bellini’s last opera, I Puritani. Bellini’s vituperative and egotistical letters, filled with jealousy and petty intrigues, and Donizetti’s balanced, generous reports give the measure of the two men. Perhaps it is this aspect of Donizetti’s personality that enabled him to endow his characters with emotional lives far richer than those imagined by his contemporaries. Even in his most amusing comic operas, works such as L’elisir d’amore, Donizetti maintains a level of pathos and sentiment. Nemorino may be a clumsy, faintly stupid oaf, but he cares deeply about his Adina. When he pours out his soul in “Una furtiva lagrima,” few eyes in the theater can remain dry.

  1. 1

    Knopf, 1956.

  2. 2

    Herbert Weinstock, Donizetti and the World of Opera in Italy, Paris, and Vienna in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Pantheon, 1963); William Ashbrook, Donizetti (London: Cassell, 1965).

  3. 3

    Guido Zavadini, Donizetti: Vita—Musiche—Epistolario (Bergamo, 1948).

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