Personalities | Gaetano Donizetti | Early Romantic | Opera

1797–1848, Italian

Gaetano Donizetti, who was born in Bergamo, wrote seven operas, some of them while still a student in Bologna, and several of them unproduced, before he scored his first success with Zoraide di Grenata (‘Zoraide of Granada’, 1822), which was performed in Rome.

Zoraide attracted the attention of impresario Domenico Barbaia, who offered Donizetti a contract to write for the Naples theatres. The result was a series of comic works, which, though successful, were clearly influenced by the compositional styles of Rossini and Bellini.

Arrival of International Fame

Then Donizetti wrote Anna Bolena (‘Anne Boleyn’, 1830), an opera set in sixteenth-century England, dealing with the life and death of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII. Anna Bolena, which revealed Donizetti’s individual style for the first time, brought international fame that enabled him to branch out beyond the confines of Naples and write for other opera houses. One of the first fruits of Donizetti’s new artistic freedom was L’elisir d’amore (‘The Elixir of Love’, 1832) a sentimental comedy produced at the Teatro della Canobbiana in Milan.

A Sinister and Sombre Opera

After the great success of L’elisir d’amore, Donizetti turned in a new direction. He was anxious to explore the high emotion of tragic opera and found his ideal plot in the story of Lucrezia Borgia (1480–1519), the incestuous poisoner of lurid, though fanciful, popular history. The opera, based on a play by the French writer Victor Hugo (1802–85), was strong stuff, so much so that it was not staged for two years, until 1833, when it was produced at La Scala, Milan, and ran for 33 performances. Lucrezia Borgia included several innovations, among them a sombre melody played by the orchestra as a sinister comment that reflected the plotting of two conspirators on stage.

Influence on Verdi

The dramatic effect was not lost on the 20-year-old Verdi, who was studying in Milan in 1833. Eighteen years later, Verdi used a similar device in his Rigoletto (1851), as musical background to the furtive meeting between Rigoletto and the assassin Sparafucile. In this and other ways, Donizetti was an important forerunner of Verdi, pioneering greater dramatic expression, richer orchestration and new combinations of voices for ensemble singing – and all of it without losing the beautiful melodic lines and harmonies that were his hallmarks.

Grand Opéra

In 1835 Donizetti returned to high-operatic drama, this time fortified by viewing French grand opéra during a visit to Paris. The result was his most famous opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, based on the novel The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott. Lucia was followed in 1837 by one of Donizetti’s many ventures into English history, for another sinister tale of betrayal, despair and death in high, royal places with Roberto Devereux, ossia Il conte d’Essex (‘Robert Devereux, or The Count (Earl) of Essex’, 1837). Robert Devereux (c. 1566–1601), the last favourite of Queen...

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