Gaetano Donizetti, born on Nov. 29, 1797, in Bergamo, Cisalpine Republic, was an Italian opera composer whose numerous operas in both Italian and French represent a transitional stage in operatic development between Rossini and Verdi. Among his major works are Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), La fille du régiment (1840), and La favorite (1840). In his serious operas he developed considerably the dramatic weight and emotional content of the genre, and his comic operas have a sparkling wit and gaiety all their own.
The youngest of three sons of the caretaker of the monte di pieta (the municipal pawnshop), Donizetti began his musical studies with Giovanni Simone Mayr, a Bavarian priest who was musical director of Sta. Maria Maggiore, Bergamo’s chief church, and also a successful composer of opera. As a choirboy Donizetti did not shine, but Mayr perceived in him a nascent musical ability and secured his entry into the Liceo Filarmonico (the musicschool) at Bologna, where he had a thorough training in fugue and counterpoint. His father hoped he would become a church composer, but, though he did compose a vast quantity of sacred music, his natural instinct was for the theatre.
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Donizetti scored his first success with Enrico di Borgogna, which first appeared in 1818 at the Teatro San Luca, in Venice, and during the next 12 years he composed no fewer than 31 operas, most of them produced at Naples and now forgotten. In 1830 his Anna Bolena, produced in Milan, carried his fame abroad to all the European capitals and eventually across the Atlantic. Two years later he scored another lasting success with L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), a comedy full of charm and character with a libretto by Felice Romani, the best theatre poet of the day. Lucrezia Borgia (1833), also with a libretto by Romani, consolidated his reputation at La Scala in Milan and elsewhere. Like the opera composers Gioacchino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini before him, he next gravitated to Paris, where his Marino Faliero, though not a failure, suffered from comparison with Bellini’s I Puritani, produced a few weeks before. Donizetti then returned to Naples for the production of his tragic masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor, on Sept. 26, 1835.
In 1828 Donizetti had married Virginia Vasseli, the sister of one of his closest friends in Rome; they made their home in Naples. He was deeply devoted to her and never really recovered his spirits after her death, soon after the stillbirth of a son, in 1837. His distress was exacerbated by the fact that none of the three children born to them survived birth. It seems clear that syphilis, to which Donizetti himself later succumbed, was already taking its toll of his family.
Donizetti continued to work in Naples until 1838, when municipal censors objected to the production of his Poliuto, which dealt with a Christian martyr, on the ground that the sacred subject was unsuitable for the stage. He thereupon returned to Paris, where the field had been cleared for him by Bellini’s early death and Rossini’s retirement. There he revived some of his best operas, though Lucrezia Borgia had to be withdrawn because of objections by Victor Hugo, on whose drama the libretto was based. Poliuto was produced in 1840 as Les Martyrs with a French text by Eugène Scribe. It was preceded two months earlier by the opéra comique La fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment), which gained enormous popularity over the years through the performances of the leading sopranos of the day, including Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti, Marcella Sembrich, Emma Albani, and other divas of the 19th century. Later in the same year the Paris Opéra produced La favorite, Donizetti’s first essay in French grand opera.
Bartolomeo Merelli, a fellow pupil of Donizetti, was now director of La Scala and also of the Kärnthnerthor Theater, in Vienna. He engaged Donizetti to compose an opera for La Scala. The work, Maria Padilla, was produced in 1841 only a few weeks before the famous premiere of Verdi’s Nabucco. Merelli also commissioned an opera for his Viennese theatre. There, Linda di Chamounix, a romantic opera semiseria, was produced in 1842 and dedicated to the empress Maria Anna. Donizetti had already been brought to the notice of the emperor Ferdinand I by his chancellor, Prince Metternich, and had conducted Rossini’s Stabat Mater in his presence. He now received the appointment of official composer to the Emperor, which obliged him to be in Vienna for six months in the year but left him free to work elsewhere during the rest. At the same time Rossini, who had always furthered Donizetti’s interests in Paris and entrusted to him the first performance of his Stabat Mater at Bologna, urged him to undertake the vacant directorship of the Liceo in that city. But Donizetti felt that he could not undertake this responsibility and preferred to continue his profitable operatic career. Back in Paris, he produced at the Théâtre Italien the delightful and witty comic opera, Don Pasquale.
Donizetti was already in the grip of his fatal disease. He produced his last important opera, Dom Sébastien, with a libretto by Scribe, at the Paris Opérain 1843 under the strain of constant headaches and occasional lapses of mental capacity. He suddenly aged, lost his good looks and his equability of temper, which had hitherto seen him through the trials of operatic production. Dom Sébastien, though unfavourably reviewed in the press, was nonetheless a success with the public.
The remaining years were a story of degeneration into hopeless insanity. As a patient in a private asylum near Paris, he had considerable difficulties with the French police, who were supported by the doctors; he was at last taken home to Bergamo by his devoted nephew Andrea, son of his eldest brother. He lingered on until April 8, 1848, a victim of general paralysis of the syphilitic insane, deprived of willpower, speech, and physical control. It was a pitiable end for a gay and handsome man who, unlike Bellini, was never envious of the successes of other composers and at all times displayed an openhearted generosity. To the French composer Hector Berlioz, for example, whose criticisms in Le Journal des Débats were consistently hostile, he spontaneously sent a letter of introduction to Prince Metternich, when Berlioz was about to leave for Vienna.
Donizetti always won more favour with the public than with the critics. During his lifetime his success was enormous and the rewards considerable. His popularity continued until the end of the century, but by 1914 his operas had almost disappeared from the repertory, overshadowed by the more substantial masterpieces of Verdi and Richard Wagner. In the 1950s there was a revival of interest in his works, after which it seemed unlikely that, at least, Lucia di Lammermoor, L’elisir d’amore, and Don Pasquale would be allowed to pass into oblivion. (Source: Britannica)
Opera in two acts, by Gaetano Donizetti
Music: Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto: Felice Romani
England, 1536. After nearly a decade of political and religious upheaval, Henry VIII has succeeded in ridding himself of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and has crowned as Queen of England his long-term mistress, Anne Boleyn. But despite the birth of a princess, Elizabeth, Anne has twice miscarried and been unable to provide Henry with a male heir.
At Greenwich Palace, courtiers discuss the state of royal affairs: Queen Anne, after less than three years of marriage, is now neglected by the king and there are rumors that his attentions have turned to another, as yet unknown woman. Jane Seymour, the queen’s chief lady-in-waiting, has been summoned to attend her but hesitates at the door to Anne’s chamber. The queen suddenly appears, demanding to know the reason for the court’s uneasy, despondent mood. She admits to Jane that she is herself troubled and asks her page, Mark Smeaton, to sing a song to cheer everyone. But the words of his song remind her of the lost happiness of her first love, which she betrayed in her ambition to marry the king. Alone in her bedchamber, Jane—who is in fact the king’s new lover—is guilt-ridden over her betrayal. Henry appears and passionately declares his love, promising Jane marriage and glory. She is disturbed by his threats about Anne’s future but realizes that it is too late for her to turn back.
Anne’s brother, Lord Rochefort, is surprised to meet Richard Percy, Earl of Northumberland, in Greenwich Park. Percy, although banished for being the queen’s former lover, has been recalled from exile by the king. He has heard of Anne’s distress and asks after her. Rochefort answers evasively. Percy admits that his own life has been miserable since he and Anne separated. The king arrives with a hunting party, followed by Anne and her ladies-in-waiting. Henry greets his wife coolly, then tells Percy that he has the queen to thank for his pardon. In fact, the king has arranged Percy’s return as a trap for Anne and is grimly amused at their emotion and embarrassment as they greet each other. He orders Hervey, a councilor, to spy on the couple. Smeaton, who is secretly in love with the queen, is on his way to her apartments in order to return a miniature portrait of her that he has stolen. He hides when Anne suddenly appears, arguing with Rochefort. Rochefort begs Anne to see Percy in the hope that she can persuade him to leave England and avert further danger to them both. Reluctantly, she agrees. Percy enters and is unable to hide that he still loves Anne. She admits that the king no longer loves—and in fact hates—her, but she remains firm and pleads with Percy to leave the realm. Distraught, Percy draws his sword. Smeaton rushes out of hiding to protect Anne, and Rochefort runs in to warn them that the king is approaching. Henry bursts in with Hervey and the court in tow. Smeaton proclaims the queen’s innocence but the furious king seizes the miniature as welcome proof of his wife’s seeming infidelity. He accuses all four of an adulterous conspiracy. Anne, in front of the court, is arrested.
Anne has been imprisoned in her apartments at Westminster Palace in London. Her ladies are anxiously awaiting news of the impending trial when they are suddenly summoned by Hervey to give evidence before the Council of Peers. They leave with the guards. Jane steals in to tell Anne that she can only avoid the death sentence by pleading guilty and confessing her adulterous crimes, thereby allowing the king to divorce her. Anne refuses, cursing the woman who has replaced her in the king’s affections. Jane admits that she is that woman. Shocked, Anne at first dismisses her, but then feels pity for Jane’s desperation. She says it is the king, not Jane, who has betrayed her.
Smeaton has falsely testified under torture to being one of the queen’s lovers. He believes his confession will save her life. Anne and Percy are brought before the council. Anne tells the king that she is ready to die but begs him to spare her the humiliation of a trial. In the following confrontation, Percy claims that he and Anne were married before she became the king’s wife. Anne is unable to deny Percy’s assertion. Even though Henry doubts that there were true vows between the lovers in the past, they have played into his hands and their conviction has become certain. Percy and Anne are led away. Jane pleads with Henry for Anne’s life, but he dismisses her. News arrives of the council’s verdict: the royal marriage is dissolved and Anne and her accomplices are to be executed. Percy discovers that Rochefort has also been condemned as an incestuous conspirator to treason. The two men resolve to meet death bravely together and with Anne.
In her cell at the Tower of London, Anne is in a state of delirium. Before her ladies, her thoughts turn to happier times: the day of her wedding to Henry, her first love for Percy, and finally her childhood at her family home. Hervey and the guards enter and Anne is awakened to the awful reality of her fate. Her fellow prisoners are brought in. Smeaton accuses himself of bringing about her end. Anne embraces Percy and her brother, drifting back into insensibility. When bells and cannon fire are heard, announcing the king’s new marriage, Anne comes to her senses again. She furiously curses the royal couple and goes to face her execution.
Source: Metropolitan Opera