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…

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