1797 — 1848
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Donizetti was an Italian composer most famous for his bel canto style operas. He was one of the three greats, along withRossini and Bellini.
Gaetano Donizetti was born to a poor family in Bergamo in 1797. Johann Simon Mayr noticed the ragged boy’s talent for music and trained him and then ensured that he receive further education at the prestigious Lezioni Caritatevoli School in Bologna from 1815. Donizetti also studied counterpoint later with Padre Mattei.
Donizetti began composing opera as early as 1816, but his works up until 1817 were never staged. His first opera to be performed wasEnrico di Borgogna (1818) at the Teatro di San Luca in Venice. The theatre was impressed with his work and immediately requested another work, the one-actfarsa Una follia (lost). The impresario then asked for two more,Le nozze in villa (Mantua, 1819) and Il falegname di Livonia(Venice, S Samuele, 1819). During this early period he also composed many of his sacred works and several string quartets for Mayr’s ensemble.
Donizetti received the chance in 1821 to compose for the new Teatro Argentina in Rome, for which he composedZoraid di Granata (1821), which proved to be even more successful than his previous works. This led to contact with the leading impresario, Domenico Barbaja, who asked Donizetti to compose for Naples. He moved to Naples the next year, where he stayed for 16 years. His first opera while in Naples wasLa zingara (1822), which is rumoured to have impressed Bellini so much that he played it every day on his harpsichord.
Problems with librettist Felice Romani were detrimental to their one-act comic opera,Chiara e Serafina (1822), for the La Scala in Milan. Romani delivered the text to Donizetti just two weeks before the first rehearsal. The opera was poorly received, although the lateness of the libretto cannot be entirely to blame, as Donizetti also had some very successful works that were rushed. Due to the opera’s failure, Donizetti would not receive a commission from the leading theatre of Milan in the near future.
More disappointment followed at the Teatro Carolino in Palermo between 1825 and 1826. He was paid far too little and produced only one opera,Alahor in Granata, which was poorly received due to its excessive use of Rossini’s formulas and the immorality of the libretto.
After his return to Naples in 1827, Donizetti signed a contract with Barbaja to produce four new opera per year for three years. Despite this demanding assignment, he was also able to compose for other theatres in the meantime, the most important of which wasAlina regina di Golconda (1828) for the new Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa. During this period Bellini and Donizetti had several intense arguments.
From 1828 to 1838, Donizetti was director of the royal theatres of Naples. He also composedL’esule di Roma (1828) and Il diluvio universal (1830) at this time for the Teatro S Carlo.L’esule di Roma was an immediate success and was soon staged at the La Scala.
It was with Donizetti’s 31st opera, Ana Bolena (1830), that his reputation as one of the top opera composers became firmly established. The opera was also performed internationally in Paris and London. Important singers for his operas became the tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez and the baritone Giorgio Ronconi, both of which performed in many of his operas. Donizetti began writing roles to fit the voices of these two stars.
The year 1833 saw the premiere of four of Donizettis operas, including Il furioso all’isoa di San Domingo, Parisina (1833) and Torquato Tasso (1833).
Donizetti composed many serious operas in the 1830s, yet they were all greatly affected by the censorship at the time. The works should not offend the local taste in any way or shock the audience. The murder of five character inLucrezia Borgiaresulted in its ban in Naples. Only in Milan could it be staged as intended. Frustrated with the censors in Naples, Donizetti left for Paris in 1838, where he had previously received a commission in 1835. For hisMarino Faliero,Donizetti received many pointers from Rossini, including revising ‘the introduction, the finale, and many other pieces’. The opera was well-received, but did not achieve the level of success as Bellini’sI puritani.
Tragedy struck Donizetti in the late 1830s. His parents died within weeks of one another and then his wife died after giving birth to their second stillborn child. Her problems with childbirth were likely a result of the syphilis that would also affect Donizetti a few years later.
After a year of no new compositions, Les martyrs was produced at the Opéra in 1840. This same year hisLa fille du regiment was performed at the Opéra-Comique and Lucie de Lammermoor at the new Théâtre de la Renaissance. L’ange de Nisida was also scheduled to be performed at the Renaissance, but it went bankrupt. Donizetti reworked the music as La favorite (1840), and it was performed at the Opéra.
Donizetti’s fame led to many commissions and job offers. He eventualy accepted the position of Hofkapellmeister to the Habsburg court in Vienna and court composer to the Austrian emperor. This post required him to give lessons at the conservatory, conduct several concerts a year and compose pieces for the court. It also allowed him five to six months of leave per year.
At the height of his career, Donizetti continued to compose at an incredible speed, setting him apart from both Verdi and Bellini, who composed fewer works after they had achieved financial security.
Donizetti’s final opera was Dom Sébastien (1843). After having suffered from headaches and fever for quite some time, the syphilis took over and Donizetti was not able to compose anymore. He was confined for a short time to an asylum in Paris in 1846, but in 1847 he was released, at the urging of friends and family, and allowed to return to Bergamo until his death on 8 April 1848.
Left: set design for Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermoor by Francesco Bagnara, circa 1844. Other images courtesy of Civico Museo Teatrale Carlo Schmidl, Italian Opera and public domain