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.

In 1965 Ashbrook sought to complement his study of Donizetti’s life with a consideration of philological and aesthetic issues. Though he could not always penetrate the meaning of Donizetti’s complex autograph manuscripts, many of which jumble together pieces from several different versions of an opera, he realized that their secrets needed to be extracted. He knew, for example, that much of La Favorite originated as a quite different work, L’ange de Nisida. Not having fully investigated the large collection of miscellaneous Donizetti manuscripts in the Paris Conservatory, he could only guess how Donizetti made the adaptation. Yet the question is of fundamental significance, not only for our understanding of La Favorite but also for L’ange de Nisida, an opera which can in large part be reconstructed.

Ashbrook knew also that the composer’s correspondence constantly alluded to questions of form, style, and artistic integrity. Donizetti vehemently protested some of the theatrical practices of his time. In 1843 he published an open letter criticizing a performance of his Fausta (written in 1831) in which the opera had been heavily revised without his consent. He wrote to a friend:

I believed [the letter] would be of use to my colleagues. I hoped to draw away from our shoulders the whirlwind of whistling that oppresses us when pieces by another composer are introduced into an opera, or when they are transposed or altered. All these things are most damaging to poor composers who cannot come out on stage and say: This is not mine, this was not originally designed like this, this does not go so slow or so fast, this is not suited to the voice of A or B.

Yet the composer’s protests went largely unheeded. Both in his own time and in the early days of the Donizetti revival, productions were so cut and rearranged that audiences and critics were condemned to find obscure even those formal procedures most characteristic of Donizetti. Finally, because he knew intimately so few of the operas, Ashbrook in his first book accepted with only token resistance many inherited opinions, such as the presumed weakness of the thirty operas preceding Anna Bolena, all of which were supposedly cranked out in the prevailing “Rossini” style.

The author of the new book, Donizetti and His Operas, lives in an altogether more favorable climate. Research, performances, and recordings have proliferated since 1965. Italian operas that were once mere names in a list of works have begun to acquire distinctive characteristics. There is currently a festival of Rossini opera seria at New york’s Carnegie Hall, using newly available critical editions of the music. Indeed, three major Italian opera houses (Rome, Florence, and Trieste) inaugurated their 1982-1983 seasons with serious operas by Rossini. All Bellini’s mature works are staged regularly, and an extraordinary number of Donizetti’s sixty-five operas have been successfully resurrected.

Analysis of the musical sources has clarified the history of many Donizetti operas. Newly discovered letters and documents, studies exploring the relationship between Donizetti’s librettos and their literary sources, especially in French drama, investigations into the censorship of nineteenth-century productions—all of these enable us to understand better the composer’s life, achievement, and intentions. Audiences have heard superb singers in major Donizetti roles, including Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, and Luciano Pavarotti, each bringing a different interpretation and enriching our cumulative experience. There is even a Donizetti Society in London that publishes a useful journal. Ashbrook himself has been responsible for many important discoveries.

Donizetti and His Operas seeks to guide us through this vast and still relatively unknown territory. As a book it sits curiously between two models: The Life and Works of and The Operas of. In the first type, exemplified by the Master Musicians series, a purely biographical account is followed by a discussion of the works. In the second type, brilliantly achieved in Julian Budden’s The Operas of Verdi,4 the study is organized around the chronological sequence of operas, for each of which enough biographical material is provided to place the work historically.

Although Ashbrook divides his book into two parts, life and works (the latter prefaced by essays entitled “Donizetti’s Operatic World” and “Donizetti’s Use of Operatic Conventions”), the “life” is not intended to be a biography of the composer. It is rather a biography of the operas, in which Ashbrook skillfully draws together available information concerning the history of composition and performance of each work. Donizetti’s personal life is sketched in a more cursory way, and one will not find here the insights of, say, Solomon’s Beethoven, Hildesheimer’s Mozart, or Walker’s Verdi.5 In the second section, Ashbrook takes up each opera again, but now the focus is primarily critical. In yet a third place (Appendix I), he provides technical information about each work and a synopsis. With footnotes for these three sections found in three different places at the back of the book, Donizetti and His Operas can be maddening to use. It is as if Ashbrook started to write The Life and Works of, then decided to write The Operas of, but lacked the conviction to carry through either one.

There are inherent problems, to be sure, in preparing a single book about sixty-five operas. Budden, after all, wrote three books devoted to Verdi’s thirty. Had Ashbrook limited his attention to representative works, his book would have had a different, more concentrated character. His decision to discuss all the operas makes it an important compendium of information: no matter what obscure Donizettian title the Reykjavik Festival revives, Donizetti and His Operas will come to the rescue. Yet it is perfectly clear that for many works, especially but not exclusively the early ones, Ashbrook forces himself to write a paragraph when, in fact, he has nothing to say. Donizetti could not have been indifferent to his opera Gianni di Calais, written for the great tenor Rubini in 1828 and revived under the composer’s personal direction two years later during the same Milanese season that saw the première of Anna Bolena. Ashbrook’s analysis of the opera, an extreme but not unique example from his book, is limited to the following paragraph:

This three-act semiseria was composed and produced three months after Alina. Its genial but sprawling text, by Gilardoni, lacks any suspense because every event is foretold and every prediction exactly fulfilled. The most attractive aria in Gianni is Rustano’s barcarolle in Act 1, “Una barchetta in mar solcando va,” an interesting example of Donizetti’s adapting to operatic purposes the vein of the popular Neapolitan song, which he exploited further in later comic scores. Gianni di Calais ends with an aria-finale, the rondò in variation form, “Dopo tante e tante pene,” being a depressingly mechanical example of that type. When Donizetti was preparing the Italian version of La fille du régiment he rifled Gianni di Calais, taking Gianni’s Act 2 aria, “Fasti? Pompe? Omaggi? Onori?”, to serve as Tonio’s aria di sortita.

An equivalent description of Lucia di Lammermoor might read as follows:

This three-act opera seria was composed four months after Marino Faliero and produced at the end of the summer 1835. Its lugubrious text, by Cammarano, presents members of two feuding families embroiled in a love triangle. The heroine and both her lovers inevitably die before the curtain falls. The most attractive piece in Lucia is the duet for Lucia and Edgardo at the end of Act 1, particularly its cabaletta, “Verranno a te sull’aure,” an interesting example of Donizetti’s writing a slow cabaletta, which he exploited further in later scores. There is a mad scene for the soprano, another example of this overused type. When Donizetti was preparing the French version of the opera, he replaced Lucia’s cavatina with one from Rosmonda d’Inghilterra.

I have quoted Ashbrook’s description of Gianni di Calais in full because it typifies many published accounts of lesser-known operas. How many of us know more about any single work by Donizetti’s teacher, Mayr, or by the two most renowned Italian contemporaries of Donizetti and Bellini, Saverio Mercadante and Giovanni Pacini? That my parody applied to Lucia seems absurd should suggest the absurdity of similar accounts of unknown works. About Lucia, in fact, Ashbrook has written an extensive, levelheaded, and frequently incisive analysis. He demonstrates, for example, that part of the strength of the so-called “sextet” (actually the slow movement in the finale of Act 2) derives from Donizetti’s careful spacing of the voices:

The opening section (a) of the sextet is dominated by the tenor and baritone singing in thirds or sixths; at the repetition of a these lines are taken by the soprano and the bass, and the greater distance between the voices (tenths or thirteenths) and the greater contrast of vocal timbre expands the range of emotion from raw confrontation to encompass Lucia’s despair and Raimondo’s forebodings.

This is effective criticism. It reveals how Donizetti takes a rather conventionally conceived moment (every finale has its slow movement) and transforms it into a unique wedding of dramatic situation and musical setting. But Gianni di Calais remains as obscure to me now as it was before I read this book.

Ashbrook is most successful when he allows himself to explore the details of particular operas, and provides adequate musical examples. He shows Donizetti’s four Marias (Maria Stuarda, Maria de Rudenz, Maria Padilla, and Maria di Rohan), for example, as having quite distinct personalities. Especially interesting is his discussion of Maria di Rohan (1843), Donizetti’s penultimate opera and the peak of his development as a musical dramatist within the tradition of Romantic melodrama. Its structure is carefully calculated to assure a powerful dramatic rhythm and continuity. Though the characters are presented first in a series of solo numbers, as the opera proceeds Donizetti experiments with forms designed to intensify the interactions among them. The economy and deftness of Donizetti’s musical control, Ashbrook argues convincingly, anticipate much of Verdi’s mature dramaturgy.

To give a full account of an opera, however, the critic must first analyze it internally and, second, compare it with other works. To achieve the first he needs an appropriate vocabulary. The general language of critical impressions can be too imprecise to convey adequately the character and quality of a musical composition. When not further developed, judgments such as Fausta “in the long run…proved to lack…stamina,” or Gemma di Vergy “proved a moving experience,” or L’esule di Roma “comes across too often as longwinded earnestness,” are tedious. Yet Ashbrook frequently gets into difficulty when he tries to analyze the music, for he is less sensitive to harmony than one might hope. When he describes the end of Maria di Rohan, for example, he suggests an intense harmonic conclusion:

These final phrases are declaimed without any accompaniment at all, and suddenly we find ourselves in the world of Barnaba at the end of La gioconda. After this passage in B minor, the opera ends in B flat major.

Donizetti’s effect here is indeed striking, but it is not the effect Ashbrook describes. Much of the last act of Maria di Rohan turns on the harmonic relation between B flat major and D major, with B flat functioning as the flatted sixth degree of D, and the dominant of D leading by means of a deceptive cadence to B flat. The concluding moments of the opera recapitulate this effect, compressing and summarizing the harmonic progression just as the dramatic action rapidly resolves itself with Chalais’s suicide. The passage is simply not in B minor. By making this error, Ashbrook misses the chance to see the larger implications of these final measures.

Ashbrook also has difficulty distinguishing between a modulation to a new key and a harmony approached by a secondary dominant within a basically unchanging context. We expect a certain musical effect when we read that a duet in Maria Stuarda

…begins with Leicester’s balanced phrases praising Maria’s beauty, then moves from B to G major. Elisabetta wrenches the tonality back to the tonic in splendidly energetic phrases….

Yet a glance at the score reveals that Leicester’s G major is an expressive climatic detail (an extended flatted sixth degree) of his solo, and that his music closes with a full cadence on the tonic, B major. Elisabetta doesn’t “wrench” anything. Since changes in harmony are so fundamental to our perception of an opera’s dramatic rhythm, it is essential to be accurate about these details.

To compare the music of one opera with that of another, we must recognize clearly what elements are comparable. Donizetti’s operas are almost always divided into discrete musical units, usually separated by recitative. Publishers further divided them into still smaller chunks in their desire to increase the number of different extracts they could offer to the public. The composer’s autographs or manuscript copies of them offer the surest guidance to the structural units and their names.

Ashbrook knows this in theory, yet persists in employing the terminology and units of the printed editions. But how we name these pieces matters: it is the old dilemma of comparing apples and oranges. Thus Ashbrook refers to Act 2 of Roberto Devereux as “a single scene and just three numbers,” expressing surprise at some of the “unconventional” procedures in these numbers. Donizetti’s autograph, however, demonstrates that Roberto Devereux was originally planned as an opera in two acts. “Act 2” of the standard three-act version was simply the extended finale of Act 1. As a finale, the piece falls within a clearly defined archetype, however excellent a realization of that archetype it may be. As a series of three numbers it is incoherent, which is what Ashbrook really implies when he writes:

The sécond act of Roberto Devereux achieves, in its own very Italian way, the Wagnerian ideal of music drama.

This is to compare apples and oranges with a vengeance.

The same problem extends to arias. They are an important part of Donizetti’s operas and a correspondingly important part of Donizetti and His Operas is devoted to them. But many problems surround the terms used for them: aria, cavatina, rondo, double aria, romanza. What do they all mean? Though Ashbrook realizes that for Donizetti the term “rondo” refers simply to a concluding aria and does not describe its formal structure, he is confused by the term “cavatina,” about which he says:

It is difficult to use the word with any precision since it obviously did not connote to Donizetti any set pattern, but rather a wide range of aria types.

Led astray by printed editions, he applies the term inappropriately to the music sung both by the lovesick hero Nemorino, “Quanto è bella,” and the military man Belcore, “Come Paride vezzoso,” in the introduzione to L’elisir d’amore. He describes the first “cavatina” as “a single aria without cabaletta” and the second as “a slow aria with a cabaletta…where the second statement of the cabaletta develops into a concertato.” But Donizetti called neither of these passages a “cavatina” in his autograph manuscript. In fact, he almost always uses the term to mean a complete, independent entrance aria. The determining factor is the dramatic position, not the form. Because these solos for Nemorino and Belcore are not true cavatinas but segments of an introduzione, their form cannot be discussed independently of the larger unit to which they belong. Thus it is not at all surprising that Belcore’s cabaletta develops into a concertato. Ashbrook makes a similar mistake discussing the last part of the introduzione in Ugo, conte di Parigi (1832), referring to the “unconventional design” of Ircano’s cabaletta. For an independent solo number it might be unconventional; as the ending of an introduzione it fits within wellestablished traditions. Keeping terminology and categories straight helps us to think clearly.

Ashbrook hopes that his book may “serve as a point of departure for further, more detailed studies.” Let me suggest another question that badly needs further work. Histories of nineteenth-century Italian opera usually recognize the important changes that occurred during the 1830s and 1840s in the subjects deemed appropriate for operatic setting. By turning increasingly to the work of Romantic dramatists in France, Germany, and Spain, figures such as Hugo, Schiller, and Gutiérrez, as well as to English writers such as Scott and Byron, the best Italian librettists, Romani and Salvatore Cammarano (who wrote the libretto for Lucia di Lammermoor), created a more intense, passionate, and frequently bloody operatic dramaturgy. Much less attention has been given, however, to the poetic structure of opera librettos, an element that Ashbrook ignores. Yet it has a fundamental effect on how composers set to music the texts provided them.

Librettists used two varieties of poetry: the free alternation of verses of seven or eleven syllables, with occasional rhyme, and regular meters with recurring rhyme schemes. The former was employed for recitative, the latter for formal musical numbers. Composers were keenly aware of this division. The arrival of regular verse forms is usually signaled by a shift from a primarily string accompaniment to one involving the full orchestra, even if the number opens with dialogue rather than with a lyrical passage. These distinctions can go unnoticed in piano reductions—one reason why it is essential either to have the sound of the opera in one’s ear or to work from full scores.

It is worth considering two examples of poetic texts that pose similar problems for the composer. There is a famous cabaletta from Belisario whose poetry begins:

Trema Bisanzio! Sterminatrice
Su te la guerra discenderà.

Donizetti set the two verses to two parallel musical phrases. Ashbrook cites Verdi’s well-known objection to the passage: the musical setting implies that Bisanzio is “sterminatrice” (despite the difference in gender), whereas the adjective really modifies “guerra.” Donizetti is usually more sensitive to verbal values. Contrast the situation in Roberto’s aria in Roberto Devereux. Ashbrook rightly points out that this piece

…begins with a brief orchestral statement of the opening melody, and continues with two phrases of recitative—a simple modification that intensifies the spontaneity of the aria….

In fact, Donizetti’s problem here was much the same as in “Trema Bisanzio!” The first strophe of Cammarano’s text is:

A te dirò negli ultimi
Singhiozzi, in braccio a morte:
Come un spirito angelico
Pura è la tua consorte.

The break between “ultimi” and “singhiozzi” could be devastating in a style where each verse is normally set to a separate musical phrase. Donizetti’s solution, allowing the first two verses to be declaimed freely after the orchestral introduction as if they were recitative, is ingenious and helps to give the cantabile of Roberto’s aria a character all its own. A poetic problem thus gives impetus to a new musical form.

Donizetti and His Operas defines the present state of Donizetti research in much the same way as Ashbrook’s Donizetti did almost two decades ago. It shows how much we have learned since then and how much we still need to know. New editions of the major operas are particularly essential, for those commonly performed reflect the tastes and standards of the late nineteenth century. After all, even at the Metropolitan Opera we are still subjected to performances of one of Donizetti’s master-pieces, La Favorite, in a ghastly bowdlerized Italian translation, which obscures the story. Little wonder that a confused audience settles back to listen to the pretty tunes sprinkled throughout the score. But Donizetti did not write operas as settings for pretty tunes. As Ashbrook argues, Donizetti wrote works of great dramatic and emotional power, works that demand our attention and respect.

This Issue

March 31, 1983