The Triumphs and Tragedy of a Great Italian Operatic Composer
This play with live operatic arias sung by a leading local soprano explores the troubled life of one of Italy’s most treasured operatic composers. His triumphs included works which are loved by opera goers over the world today. Lucia di Lammermoor has been a staple work of international opera houses. His comedies, La Fille du Régiment, L’Elisir d’ Amore and Don Pasquale remain much loved and performed.
But the bulk of his work is much less familiar to current audiences and performers. The bulk of his 70 operas were not bubbling comedies but tragic and dramatic works which were part of the romantic movement of his day. In his time, he was not just known as the composer of a few, largely comic works, but he was the major operatic composer of Paris, Vienna, Milan and Naples, his fame spreading to London and New York. Wagner and Liszt arranged his works. Berlioz thought that he had conquered the operatic world. But fame was fleeting. Now the bulk of his work is unperformed. Brave efforts by festivals in Italy, especially in his hometown of Bergamo and by the indefatigable organisers of the Martina Franca festival in Apulia help some of his operas to have a hearing and the specialist record company Opera Rara do him proud on CD.
However, like other hugely famous figures of the nineteenth century like Meyerbeer and Mercadante and even the great Rossini, time has not been kind. But neither was fate at the time. Born in a bleak windowless cellar in Bergamo, Gaetano Donizetti was the son of a caretaker and seamstress and had little financial security. Lucky to be taken up by the local musical director Simone Mayr, the composer of many once celebrated but now forgotten operas, Gaetano was trained in the Cathedral choir school in Bergamo and learnt composition in Bologna and went on to work as a jobbing composer for the opera houses of Italy. Punishing hard work was expected, especially at Naples, to fulfil a demanding contract to produce four operas a year. The pressure may have led him to seek relief in sexual adventures and this led to tragedy. His lovely young wife Virginia lost her children and died herself as a result of illness contracted from her husband.
Donizetti threw himself into work but tragedy was reflected in many of his serious works and even his more light hearted and charming comedies have a vein of melancholy. Donizetti was at the heart of a busy operatic world which catered for an increasingly opera mad public, demanding novel libretti, even more expressive music and opportunities to hear favourite singers being pushed to their limits. This style of music – Bel canto – was to fall out of favour when audiences swung to the more opulent orchestral styles of later Verdi, Wagner, Puccini and Strauss. What had been so popular came to seem old fashioned as Donizetti always favoured the expressive power of the voice and did not write heavy quasi-symphonic music. Plots which seemed so fascinating ranging from ancient Rome to Tudor England and often featuring a doomed heroine seemed out of keeping with more realistic dramas such as those set by the verismo school.
Yet beautiful music could not be forever ignored. The great soprano Maria Callas in the 1950s was at the head of a movement to revive the old bel canto operas and her stunning live performances and the long playing records she made were revelations.
A new generation of singers such as Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballe revealed the range and quality of Donizetti’s work. But there was relatively little interest in the man himself.