Gaetano Donizetti - Biography


Gaetano Donizetti the famous Opera composer was born in Bergamo, Italy on November 29th 1897 and died there on April 1st 1848. Donizetti’s father worked in a pawn brokers shop and also was a caretaker for some other businesses. Donizetti was able to get a good musical education because his older brother Giuseppe was a noted bandmaster and a local priest was a noted opera composer Giovanna Mayr was a noted Opera composer who due to oncoming blindness took the position a church music director. Mayr was to serve as Donizetti’s principal teacher. With Mayr’s help he was accepted at the prestigious Licieo Fhilarmonico Bologna when he was seventeen. He wrote a few short operas while at the Licieo including his first Il Pigmalione. His first opera to receive a staged performance was Enrico DI Borgogna performed in Venice and was received indifferently. It should be noted that Donizetti was amazingly prolific composing 75 operas along with a good amount of sacred and instrumental music in a career last roughly 25 years. Evidently a sponsor who was impressed with Donizetti’s talent paid for his military exemption In 1820. The next nine years were to see the composition of over a score of operas all but a few like Emilia di Liverpool or Gabriella di Vergy are historical footnotes and are rarely performed even in Italy. In 1830 Donizetti was to write his fist bona fide hit Anna Bolena based on the story of Henry the Eighths ill fated wife. The opera was wriiten for the famed soprano Guida Pasta and the equally renowned tenor Rubini. He followed these up with a few more operas that have not survived into our age but in 1832 he was to write one of the favorite of his Operas the pastoral comedy L’elisir d ‘amore that centered around the country bumpkin Nemirino who buys a fake love elixir from a quack doctor so he can cast a spell on his indifferent beloved Adina this has the very famous tenor aria Una Furtiva Largrima that were million sellers for both Caruso and Pavarotti. The next year he wrote the tragic opera Lucreizia Borgia with a great title role for soprano which in our time is associated with famed Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe.


By this time besides his operatic successes he got an academic position as professor of composition at San Pietro Conservatory in Naples. In a period of less than two years he was to write the Operas Torquatto Tasso, Parisiana among others before he had his next hit with Maria Stuarda in Naples based on the deadly conflict between Queen Mary Stuart of Scotland and her cousin Elizabeth the first. Donizetti initially had difficulty staging it, the Neapolitan Court objected to a regicide acted out on stage. Donizetti during this period married a woman named Virginia Vessalli, marriage was to be tragic, she died of cholera in 1837 after she endured three still born births.


He was now to launch a Parisian career with his opera Marino Faliero. Upon his return to Naples in 1835 he was to write what was to become his most famous Opera Lucia di Lammermoor. The Scottish themed opera has its famous set pieces the Sextet and the extended Mad Scene for Lucia that became world famous. Always a great role for a soprano it has been identified with the spectacular performances of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland of the title role. After another handful of half forgotten operas his next success was Roberto Devereux which was based on the ambiguous romantic relationship between the aging Elizabeth the First and the young dashing nobleman Robert Devereux (Bette Davis, Errol Flynn along with a score by Korngold were to immortalize the story for Warner Brothers a hundred years later). He wrote an opera Poliuto for Naples in 1838 (that was very successfully revived in the 1950’s for Callas and famed tenor Franco Corelli), the court in Naples which was devoutly Catholic would not permit a performance of the Opera since it involved early Christian martyrdom a theme unsuitable for entertainment, an enraged Donizetti left Naples vowing never to come back.


Donizetti decided to go back to Paris where he wrote the comedy Daughter of the Regiment which was a huge success and has been a vehicle for famed sopranos like Lilly Pons, Joan Sutherland and Natalie Dessay while it’s famed tenor aria with nine high C’s helped make Pavarotti a superstar. He then reset Poliuto as a French opera Les Martyr’s and wrote the successful La Favorite one of his few operas to have a Mezzo heroine. Donizetti wrote an opera for Vienna the following year, Linda di Chamounix that did well and is occasionally revived in our time. When Donizetti returned to Paris he wrote the great comedy Don Pasquale for an all star cast including soprano Grisi, tenor Mario and famed basso Lablace as Pasquale. Health problems had now begun to plague Donizetti, the old enemy of Nineteenth Century composers and poet’s tertiary Syphilis was beginning to take its toll. He was able to complete there more operas Maria di Rohan, Dom Sebastien and Caterina Cornaro. By 1845 he was in complete mental and physical collapse and had to be institutionalized. A nephew was allowed to take him back to this home town of Bergamo a few months before he died there on April 1st 1848.


Donizetti is in many ways the progenitor of the operas of Verdi. While always viewed as great figure in Italy, he was well into the 1930’s was thought of as an outmoded figure by informed critical opinion. It was the post war emergence of Callas along with the somewhat later coming of Sutherland, Pavarotti and Caballe that spurred the great Donizetti revival. Praise should also be given to conductor Richard Bonynge for his yeoman’s work. Many of his once unknown operas are being made available on recordings especially on the British label Opera Rara. Donizetti rarely reached the great dramatic heights of Verdi but he offered great skills as a composer of beautiful melodies who wrote superbly for the voice.

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