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Gaetano Donizetti

Donizetti was an Italian Composer who during his lifetime wrote over 65 operas with the best known being Lucia di Lammermoor, L’elisir d’amore, and Don Pasquale. After the death of Bellini he was considered the most significant composer until Verdi but his reputation fluctuated during his life and it was only from the 1940’s that many of his pieces have been performed regularly at an international level.

Donizetti was a central figure in the Bel Canto style (beautiful singing) which was considered to have been a strong influence on Verdi’s style. His view was that the solo voice should be the centre piece, and harmonies and Orchestra were support mechanisms. He was recognized for being more interested in the dramatic expression of the Opera than the mechanical working out of musical formulas and therefore composing more unusual works.

Donizetti came from a poor family in Lombardy but under the mentorship of the successful composer Simone Mayr managed to secure a full scholarship at a school for choristers and instrumentalists. Unusually even after his voice broke he stayed on as the director could see his exceptional musical talent in composition.

He continued to study for 2 years at Bologna (1815 -17) where he wrote various chamber music, sacred music and salon music pieces. His first staged Opera was in Venice in 1818 with Enrico di Borgogna (Henry of Burgundy). Unusually this was not commissioned and Donizetti wrote it before persuading Teatro San Luca to accept it. However it was not a success partly down to the necessity of having to remove some of the music as the Soprano, Adelaide Catalani, pulled out at the last minute due to stage fright.

In 1822 after having written 9 Operas he was invited to move to Teatro San Carlo in Naples who then went on to stage 51 of his Operas before 1844!

Whilst mainly writing for Teatro San Carlo Opera his success was mixed with almost as many failures (Alfredo il Grande, Elvida) as successes (La Zingara, Zoraida).

Originally it was his Comic Operas that garnered acclaim and it was only after the Zoraida di Granata Opera in 1822,

followed by the Anna Bolena Opera in 1830 in Rome, that his more serious Italian Operas gained traction and interest on the international scene. In 1830 Anna Bolena catapulted Donizetti into the limelight being performed throughout Italy and with London being the first European capital to stage it.

1830 to 1835 was a prolific time for Donizetti, with 10 opera’s written between 1831-1833 being presented in Milan, Naples and Rome and with operas such as L’elisir d’amore (1832), and the Opera Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) being composed.

Lucia di Lammermoor was based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott and was considered a huge success at the time, and one of the high points of the Bel Canto Era. His timing and content was perfect leveraging the Europeans fashionable interest in Scotland and its bloody wars, and the Tudor period. A series of his Operas loosely based on fact in the late 1820’s/early 30’s were scored, with the Robert Devereux Opera (1837) particularly popular focusing on Essex’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth.

This led to a series of commissions in Venice and Paris at a time when Donizetti was frustrated by the restrictions placed on his subject matter by the Italian authorities and especially Naples. He liked to choose his own subject to write about and the freedoms of Paris beckoned. Following his commission from the Paris Opera to become the first Italian composer to receive a commission to write a real grand Opera, in 1838 he effectively moved to base himself in Paris for 10 years. 

His first French Opera was the French version of Poliuto which he evolved and revised to become Les Martyrs.

The King of Naples had previously banned Poliuto for being inappropriate to be on stage. This was his most prolific time writing for the Paris Opera houses, though he did flit back and forth to Milan, Vienna and Naples as well on an exhausting schedule.

By 1842 the grueling pace of his schedule was taking its toll and his health began to suffer, but still he was composing masterpieces such as Don Pasquale (1843) which was an overwhelming success with performances lasting from early January to late March.

However he was now showing symptoms of Syphilis and Bi-Polar mental health which was affecting his work. For example the failure of Caterina Cornero in Naples (1844) was put down to his inability to travel there to stage it, and to the singers not finding the right tone without his personal direction. There were several commissions he did not fulfill and increasingly he turned down new requests aware of his limitations.

However with his health significantly deteriorating and after consulting various doctors his nephew took the hard decision to place him into a mental institution in 1846. This was described as “more like a health spa. A hospital in the guise of a country house”, but did not cure him and after 7 months his nephew decided to take him back to Bergamo for his final years.

He died at the age of 51 with his final 3 years in terrible health being able to barely speak or move from cerebrospinal syphilis.

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