A new and very happy hope is rising for the Italian musical theatre. The young Maestro Gaetano Donizetti...has launched himself strongly in his truly serious opera, Zoraida. Unanimous, sincere, universal was the applause he justly collected from the capacity audience....
The youngest of three sons, Donizetti was born in 1797 in Bergamo's Borgo Canale quarter located just outside the city walls. His family was very poor and had no tradition of music, his Father Andrea being the caretaker of the town pawnshop. Simone Mayr, a German Composer of internationally successful operas, had become maestro di cappella at Bergamo's principal church in 1802. He founded the Lezioni Caritatevoli school in Bergamo in 1805 for the purpose of providing musical training, including classes in literature, beyond what choirboys ordinarily received up until the time that their voices broke. In 1807, Andrea Donizetti attempted to enroll both his sons, but the elder, Giuseppe (then 18), was considered too old. Gaetano (then 9) was accepted.
While not especially successful as a choirboy during the first three trial months of 1807 (there being some concern about a difetto di gola, a throat defect), Mayr was soon reporting that Gaetano "surpasses all the others in musical progress" and he was able to persuade the authorities that the young boy's talents were worthy of keeping him in the school. He remained there for nine years, until 1815.
However, as Donizetti scholar william Ashbrook notes, in 1809 he was threatened with having to leave because his voice was changing. In 1810 he applied for and was accepted by the local art school, the Academia Carrara, but it is not known whether he attended classes. Then, in 1811, Mayr once again intervened. Having written both libretto and music for a "pasticcio-farsa", Il piccolo compositore di musica, as the final concert of the academic year, Mayr cast five young students, among them his young pupil Donizetti as "the little composer". As Ashbrook states, this "was nothing less than Mayr's argument that Donizetti be allowed to continue his musical studies".
The piece was performed on 13 September 1811 and included the Composer character stating the following:
In Bologna, he would justify the faith which Mayr had placed in him. Author John Stewart Allitt describes his 1816 "initial exercises in operatic style", the opera Il pigmalione, as well as his composition of portions of Olympiade and L'ira d'Achille in 1817, as two being no more than "suggest[ing] the work of a student". Encouraged by Mayr to return to Bergamo in 1817, he began his "quartet years" as well as composing piano pieces and, most likely, being a performing member of quartets where he would have also heard music of other composers. In addition, he began seeking employment.
After extending his time in Bologna for as long as he could, Donizetti was forced to return to Bergamo since no other prospects appeared. Various small opportunities came his way and, at the same time, he made the acquaintance of several of the Singers appearing during the 1817/18 Carnival season. Among them was the Soprano Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis and her husband, the bass Giuseppe de Begnis.
A coincidental meeting around April 1818 with an old school friend, Bartolomeo Merelli (who was to go on to a distinguished career), led to an offer to compose the music from a libretto which became Enrico di Borgogna. Without a commission from any opera house, Donizetti decided to write the music first and then try to find a company to accept it. He was able to do so when Paolo Zancla, the impresario of the Teatro San Luca (an early theatre built in 1629, which later became the Teatro Goldoni) in Venice accepted it. Thus Enrico was presented on 14 November 1818, but with little success, the audience appearing to be more interested in the newly re-decorated opera house rather than the performances, which suffered from the last-minute withdrawal of the Soprano Adelaide Catalani due to stage fright and the consequent omission of some her music. Musicologist and Donizetti scholar william Ashbrook provides a quotation from a review in the Nuovo osservatore veneziano of 17 November in which the reviewer notes some of these performance issues which faced the Composer, but he adds: "one cannot but recognize a regular handling and expressive quality in his style. For these the public wanted to salute Signor Donizetti on stage at the end of the opera."
For Donizetti, the result was a further commission and, using another of Merelli's librettos, this became the one-act, Una follia which was presented a month later. However, with no other work forthcoming, the Composer once again returned to Bergamo, where a cast of Singers made up from the Venice production the month before, presented Enrico di Borgogna in his home town on 26 December. He spent the early months of 1819 working on some sacred and instrumental music, but little else came of his efforts until the latter part of the year when he wrote Il falegname di Livonia from a libretto by Gherardo Bevilacqua-Aldobrandini. The opera was given first at the Teatro San Samuele in Venice in December. Other work included expansion of Il nozze in villa, a project which he had started in mid-1819, but the opera was not presented until the carnival season of 1820/21 in Mantua. Little more is known about it except its lack of success and the fact the score has totally disappeared.
Remaining in Bergamo until October 1821, the Composer busied himself with a variety of instrumental and choral pieces, but during that year, he had been in negotiation with Giovanni Paterni, intendant of the Teatro Argentina in Rome, and by 17 June had received a contract to compose another opera from a libretto being prepared by Merelli. It is unclear as to how this connection came about: whether it had been at Merelli's suggestion or whether, as william Ashbrook speculates, it had been Mayr who had initially been approached by Paterni to write the opera but who, due to advancing age, had recommended his prize pupil. This new opera seria became Donizetti's Zoraida di Granata, his ninth work. The libretto had been started by August and, between then and 1 October when Donizetti was provided with a letter of introduction from Mayr to Jacopo Ferretti, the Roman poet and librettist who was to later feature in the young composer's career, much of the music had been composed.
The twenty-four-year-old Composer arrived in Rome on 21 October, but plans for staging the opera were plagued with a major problem: the tenor cast in the major role died a few days before the opening night on 28 January 1822 and the role had to be re-written for a musico, a mezzo-soprano singing a male role, a not uncommon feature of the era and of Rossini's operas. Opening night was a triumph for Donizetti; as reported in the weekly Notizie del giorno:
Immediately busy in the spring months of 1823 with a cantata, an opera seria for the San Carlo, and an opera buffa for the Nuovo, Donizetti also had to work on the revised Zoraide for Rome. Unfortunately however, the music set for the San Carlo premiere of Alfredo il grande on 2 July was described in the Giornali as "...one could not recognize the Composer of La zingara." It received only one performance, while his two-act farsa, Il fortunato inganno, given in September at the Teatro del Fondo received only three performances.
Back in Naples, he embarked upon his first venture into English Romanticism with the opera semiseria, Emilia di Liverpool, which was given only seven performances in July 1824 at the Nuovo. The critical reaction in the Giornali some months later focused on the weaknesses of the semiseria genre itself, although it did describe Donizetti's music for Emilia as "pretty". The composer's activities in Naples became limited because 1825 was a Holy Year in Rome and the death of Ferdinand I in Naples caused little or no opera to be produced in both cities for a considerable time.
However, he did obtain a year-long position for the 1825/26 season at the Teatro Carolino in Palermo, where he became musical Director (as well teaching at the Conservatory). There, he staged his 1824 version of L'ajo nell'imbarazzo as well as his new opera Alahor in Granata. But overall, his experience in Palermo does not appear to have been pleasant, mainly because of the poorly managed theatre, the continual indisposition of Singers, or their failure to appear on time. These issues caused a delay until January 1827 for the premiere of Alahor, after which he went back in Naples in February, but with no specific commitments until midsummer.
Writer John Stewart Allitt observes that, by 1827/28, three important elements in Donizetti's professional and personal life came together: Firstly, he met and began to work with the librettist Domenico Gilardoni who wrote eleven librettos for him, beginning with Otto mesi in due ore in 1827 and continuing until 1833. Gilardoni shared with the Composer a very good sense of what would work on stage. Next, the Naples impresario Barbaja engaged him to write twelve new operas during the following three years. In addition, he was to be appointed to the position of Director of the Royal Theatres of Naples beginning in 1829, a job that the Composer accepted and held until 1838. Like Rossini, who had occupied this position before him, Donizetti was free to compose for other opera houses. Finally, in May 1827 he announced his engagement to Virginia Vasselli, the daughter of the Roman family who had befriended him there and who was then 18 years old.
By nine years, he was the younger brother of Giuseppe Donizetti, who had become, in 1828, Instructor General of the Imperial Ottoman Music at the court of Sultan Mahmud II (1808–1839). The youngest of the three brothers was Francesco whose life was spent entirely in Bergamo, except for a brief visit to Paris during his brother's decline. He survived him by only eight months.
At the same time, continental audiences of that time seemed to be fascinated by the Tudor period of 16th century English history, revolving as it does around the lives of King Henry VIII (and his six wives), Mary I of England ("Bloody Mary"), Queen Elizabeth I, as well as the doomed Mary Stuart, known in England as Mary, Queen of Scots. Many of these historical characters appear in Donizetti's dramas, operas which both preceded and followed Anna Bolena. They were Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, based on Scribe's Leicester and Hugo's Amy Robsart (given in Naples in July 1829 and revised in 1830). Then came Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart), based on Schiller's play and given at La Scala in December 1835. It was followed by the third in the "Three Donizetti Queens" series, Roberto Devereux, which features the relationship between Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex. It was given at the San Carlo in Naples in October 1837.
With his commissions, the years from 1830 to 1835 saw a huge outpouring of work; L'elisir d'amore, a comedy produced in 1832, came soon after Anna Bolena's success and it is deemed to be one of the masterpieces of 19th-century opera buffa.
Then came a rapid series of operas from Naples including Francesca di Foix (May 1831); La romanziera e l'uomo nero (June 1831); and Fausta (January 1832). Two new operas were presented in Milan: Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali (April 1831) and Ugo, conte di Parigi (March 1832). Rome presented Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo (January 1833) and Torquato Tasso (September 1833). Otto mesi in due ore (1833) was given in Livorno and Parisina (March 1833) was given in Florence.
After the successful staging of Lucrezia Borgia in 1833, his reputation was further consolidated, and Donizetti followed the paths of both Rossini and Bellini by visiting Paris, where his Marin Faliero was given at the Théâtre-Italien in March 1835. However, it suffered by comparison to Bellini's I puritani which appeared at the same time.
Donizetti returned from Paris to oversee the staging of Lucia di Lammermoor on 26 September 1835. It was set to a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, the first of eight for the Composer. The opera was based on The Bride of Lammermoor, the novel by Sir Walter Scott, and it was to become his most famous opera, one of the high points of the bel canto tradition, the opera reaching a stature similar to that achieved by Bellini's Norma.
As Donizetti's fame grew, so did his engagements. He was offered commissions by both La Fenice in Venice—a house he had not visited for about seventeen years and to which he returned to present Belisario on 4 February 1836. Just as importantly, after the success of his Lucia at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris in December 1837, approaches came from the Paris Opéra. As musicologists Roger Parker and william Ashbrook have stated, "negotiations with Charles Duponchel, the Director of the Opéra, took on a positive note for the first time" and "the road to Paris lay open for him", the first Italian to obtain a commission to write a real grand opera.
It was during the months which Donizetti spent in Rome for the production of Zoraida that he met the Vasselli family, with Antonio initially becoming a good friend. Antonio's sister Virginia was at that point only 13. However, Virginia was to become Donizetti's wife in 1828. She gave birth to three children, none of whom survived and, within a year of his parents' deaths—on 30 July 1837—she also died from what is believed to be cholera or measles, but Ashbrook speculates that it was connected to what he describes as a "severe syphilitic infection."
In October 1838, Donizetti moved to Paris vowing never to have dealings with the San Carlo again after the King of Naples banned the production of Poliuto on the grounds that such a sacred subject was inappropriate for the stage. In Paris, he offered Poliuto to the Opéra and it was set to a new and expanded four-act French-language libretto by Eugène Scribe with the title, Les Martyrs. Performed in April 1840, it was his first grand opera in the French tradition and was quite successful. Before leaving that city in June 1840, he had time to oversee the translation of Lucia di Lammermoor into Lucie de Lammermoor as well as to write La fille du régiment, his first opera written specifically to a French libretto. This became another success.
After leaving Paris in June 1840, Donizetti was to write ten new operas, although not all were performed in his lifetime. Before arriving in Milan by August 1840, he visited Switzerland and then his hometown of Bergamo, eventually reaching Milan where he was to prepare an Italian version of La fille du régiment. No sooner was that accomplished than he was back in Paris to adapt the never-performed 1839 libretto L'ange de Nisida as the French-language La favorite, the premiere of which took place on 2 December 1840. Then he rushed back to Milan for Christmas, but returned almost immediately and by late February 1841 was preparing a new opera, Rita, ou Deux hommes et une femme. However, it was not staged until 1860.
Donizetti's obligations in Vienna included overseeing the annual Italian season at the Theater am Kärntnertor which began in May. Verdi's Nabucco (which Donizetti had seen in Milan at its premiere in March 1842 and with which he had been impressed) was featured as part of that season. However, his main preoccupation was to complete the orchestration of Maria di Rohan, which was accomplished by 13 February for planned performances in June. The season began with a very successful revival of Linda di Chamounix. Nabucco followed, the first production of a Verdi opera in Vienna. The season also included Don Pasquale in addition to The Barber of Seville. Finally, Maria di Rohan was given on 5 June. In reporting the reaction to this opera in a teasing letter to Antonio Vasselli in Rome, he tried to build suspense, stating that "With the utmost sorrow, I must announce to you that last evening I have given my Maria di Rohan [and he names the singers]. All their talent was not enough to save me from "a sea of [pause, space] – applause....Everything went well. Everything."
On 30 December 1843, Donizetti was back in Vienna, having delayed leaving until 20th because of illness. Ashbrook comments on how he was viewed in that city, with "friends notic[ing] an alarming change in his physical condition", and with his ability to concentrate and to simply remaining standing often being impaired.
William Ashbrook describes the second half of 1844 as a period of "pathetic restlessness". He continues: "Donizetti went to Bergamo, Lovere on Lake Iseo [about 26 miles from Bergamo], back to Bergamo, to Milan [31 July], to Genoa [with his friend Antonio Dolci, on 3 August, where they stayed until 10 August because of illness], to Naples [by steamer, from which he wrote to Vasselli in Rome explaining that the upcoming visit may be last time he would see his brother], [then] to Rome [on 14 September to see Vasselli], back to Naples [on 2 October after being invited back to Naples for the first San Carlo performances of Maria di Rohan on 11 November, which was immensely successful], to Genoa [on 14 November by boat; arrived 19th] and on to Milan again [for two days]" before reaching Bergamo on 23 November where his found his old friend Mayr to be very ill. He delayed his departure for as long as possible, but Mayr died on 2 December shortly after Donizetti had left Bergamo.
The culmination of the crisis in Donizetti's health came in August 1845 when he was diagnosed with cerebro-spinal syphilis and severe mental illness. Two doctors, including Dr. Philippe Ricord (a specialist in syphilis), recommended that, along with various remedies, he abandon work altogether and both agreed that the Italian climate would be better for his health. But letters to friends reveal two things: that he continued to work on Gemma di Vergy that autumn for its performance in Paris on 16 December, and that he revealed a lot about the progression of his illness.
In February 1846, reluctant to consider going further towards institutionalization, he relied on the further advice of two of the doctors who had examined his uncle in late January. They stated:
In late December, early January 1847, visits from a friend from Vienna who lived in Paris—Baron Eduard von Lannoy—resulted in a letter from Lannoy to Giuseppe Donizetti in Constantinople outlining what he saw as a better solution: rather than have friends travel the five hours to see his brother, Lannoy recommended that Gaetano be moved to Paris where he could be taken care of by the same doctors. Giuseppe agreed and sent Andrea back to Paris, which he reached on 23 April. Visiting his uncle the following day, he found himself recognized. He was able to go on to convince the Paris Prefect, by threats of family action and general public concern, and the Composer should be moved to an apartment in Paris. This took place on 23 June and, while there, he was able to take rides in his carriage and appeared to be much more aware of his surroundings. However, he was held under virtual house arrest by the police for several more months, although able to be visited by friends and even by Verdi while he was in Paris. Finally—on 16 August—in Constantinople, Giuseppe filed a formal complaint with the Austrian ambassador (given that the Composer was an Austrian citizen).
Based on the report of the accompanying Doctor, Donizetti did not appear to have suffered from the journey. He was settled comfortably in a large chair, speaking very rarely or only in occasional monosyllables, and mostly remaining detached from everyone around him. However, when Giovannina Basoni (who eventually became Baroness Scotti) played and sang arias from the composer's operas, he did appear to pay some attention. On the other hand, when the tenor Rubini visited and, together with Giovannina, sang music from Lucia di Lammermoor, Antonio Vasselli reported that there was no sign of recognition at all. This condition continued well into 1848, more or less unchanged until a serious bout of apoplexy occurred on 1 April followed by further decline and the inability to take in food. Finally, after the intense night of 7 April, Gaetano Donizetti died on the afternoon of 8 April.
Initially, Donizetti was buried in the cemetery of Valtesse but in 1875 his body was transferred to Bergamo's Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore near the grave of his Teacher Simon Mayr.
Gaetano's brother Giuseppe, on leave from Constantinople, arrived in Vienna in early June. He had intended to leave by about 22nd, but Gaetano's bout of illness delayed his departure, and the brothers traveled together to Bergamo on about 12 or 13 July proceeding slowly but arriving around 21st.
By 5 December he was in Vienna writing a letters to his friend Guglielmo Cottrau on 6th and again on 12th, stating "I am not well. I am in the hands of a Doctor." While there were periods of relative calm, his health continued to fail him periodically and then there were relapses into depression, as expressed in a letter: "I am half-destroyed, it's a miracle that I'm still on my feet".
By the end of May, Andrea had decided that his uncle would be better off in the Italian climate, and three outside Physicians were called in for their opinions. Their report concluded with the advice that he leave for Italy without delay. But, as Andrea began to make plans for his uncle's journey to and upkeep in Bergamo, he was forced by the Paris Prefect of Police to have his uncle undergo another examination by other Physicians appointed by the Prefect. Their conclusion was the opposite of that of the previous doctors: "we are of the opinion that the trip should be forbidden formally as offering very real dangers and being far from allowing hope of any useful result." With that, the Prefect informed Andrea that Donizetti could not be moved from Ivry. Andrea saw little use in remaining in Paris. He sought a final opinion from the three doctors practicing at the clinic, and on 30 August, they provided a lengthy report outlining step-by-step the complete physical condition of their declining patient, concluding that the rigours of travel—the jolting of the carriage, for example—could bring on new symptoms or complications impossible to treat on such a journey. Andrea left for Bergamo on 7 (or 8) September 1846 taking with him a partial score of Le duc d'Albe, the completed score of Rita, and a variety of personal effects, including jewelry.
This dramma tragico appeared at a time when several factors were moving Donizetti's reputation as a Composer of opera to greater heights: Gioachino Rossini had recently retired and Vincenzo Bellini had died shortly before the premiere of Lucia leaving Donizetti as "the sole reigning genius of Italian opera". Not only were conditions ripe for Donizetti to achieve greater fame as a Composer, but there was also an interest across the continent of Europe in the history and culture of Scotland. The perceived romance of its violent wars and feuds, as well as its folklore and mythology, intrigued 19th century readers and audiences, and Scott made use of these stereotypes in his novel.