Portland Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor 2013

Lucia’s love, fanned into madness by an unsympathetic brother, leaves her new bridegroom in a puddle of blood.
This tragic masterpiece, with its ravishing melodies and vocal thrills (as well as a secret rendezvous, a duel, and a murder) is Donizetti’s crowning achievement, and one of the most beloved operas ever composed.
Internationally acclaimed coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral makes her Portland Opera debut as Lucia. The New York Times called Ms. Futral “vocally luminous, emotionally vulnerable and brilliant,” and praised her “mesmerizing combination of vocal elegance and expressive ferocity.”
Sung in Italian with English translations projected above the stage.

Lucia Elizabeth Futral
Alisa Melissa Fajardo
Edgardo Scott Ramsay
Normanno Carl Halvorson
Arturo Ian José Ramirez
Enrico Weston Hurt
Raimondo Peter Volpe
Original Production James Robinson
Stage Director Doug Scholz-Carlson
Conductor George Manahan


In a feud between the Scottish families of Ravenswood and Lammermoor, Enrico (Lord Henry Ashton of Lammermoor) has gained the upper hand over Edgardo (Edgar of Ravenswood), killing his kinsmen and taking over his estates. By the time of the opera’s action, however, Enrico’s fortunes have begun to wane. In political disfavor, he stakes all on uniting his family with that of Arturo (Lord Arthur Bucklaw), whom he means to force his sister, Lucia (Lucy Ashton), to marry. 


In a ruined park near Lammermoor Castle, Enrico’s retainers prepare to search for a mysterious trespasser. Normanno, captain of the guard, remains behind to greet Enrico, who decries Lucia’s refusal to marry Arturo. When the girl’s elderly tutor, Raimondo, suggests that grief over her mother’s death keeps her from thoughts of love, Normanno reveals that Lucia has been discovered keeping trysts with a hunter who saved her from a raging bull. He suspects the stranger is none other than Edgardo. Enrico rages, and as retainers confirm Normanno’s suspicions, he swears vengeance.

At a fountain near her mother’s tomb, Lucia, fearful of her brother, awaits a rendezvous with Edgardo. She tells her confidante, Alisa, the tale of a maiden’s ghost that haunts the fountain and has warned her of a tragic end to her love for Edgardo. Though Alisa implores her to take care, Lucia cannot restrain her love. On arrival, Edgardo explains he must go to France on a political mission but wishes to reconcile himself with Enrico so he and Lucia may marry. Lucia, knowing her brother will not relent, begs Edgardo to keep their love a secret. Though infuriated at Enrico’s persecution, he agrees. The lovers seal their vows by exchanging rings, then bid each other farewell.



In an anteroom of Lammermoor Castle, Enrico plots with Normanno to force Lucia to marry Arturo. As the captain goes off to greet the bridegroom, Lucia enters, distraught but defiant, only to be shown a forged letter, supposedly from Edgardo, proving him pledged to another. Crushed, she longs for death, but Enrico insists on her marrying at once to save the family fortunes. Now Raimondo urges her to consent to the wedding, invoking the memory of her mother and asking her to respect the family’s desperate situation. When she yields, he reminds her there are heavenly rewards for earthly sacrifices. 

In the great hall of Lammermoor, as guests hail the union of two important families, Arturo pledges to restore the Ashtons’ prestige. Enrico prepares him for Lucia’s melancholy by pleading her grief over her mother’s death. No sooner has the girl entered and been forced to sign the marriage contract than Edgardo bursts in. Returning earlier than expected, he has learned of the wedding and come to claim his bride. Bloodshed is averted only when Raimondo commands the rivals to put up their swords. Seeing Lucia’s signature on the contract, Edgardo tears his ring from her finger, curses her and rushes from the hall. Hardly comprehending his words, Lucia collapses. 


Edgardo sits in a chamber at the foot of Wolf’s Crag tower, deep in thought, as a storm rages. Enrico rides there to confront him, and the flames of their enmity flare. They agree to meet at dawn among the tombs of the Ravenswoods to fight a duel.The continuing wedding festivities are halted when Raimondo enters to announce that Lucia, gone mad, has stabbed and killed Arturo in the bridal chamber. Disheveled, unaware of what she has done, she wanders in, recalling her meetings with Edgardo and imagining herself married to him. When the angry Enrico rushes in, he is silenced by the sight of her pitiful condition. Believing herself in heaven, Lucia falls dying.

Among the tombs of his ancestors, Edgardo, last of the Ravenswoods, laments Lucia’s supposed betrayal and awaits his duel with Enrico, which he hopes will end his own life. Guests leaving Lammermoor Castle tell Edgardo the dying Lucia has called his name. As he is about to rush to her side, Raimondo arrives to tell of her death, and her bier is carried by. Resolving to join Lucia in heaven, Edgardo stabs himself and dies.

 — courtesy of Opera News

The Making of Lucia di Lammermoor


“Our theaters go from bad to worse…the operas fail, the public hisses, the attendance is poor…The crisis is near, the public has indigestion, the Società teatrale is about to be dissolved, Vesuvius is smoking, and the eruption is near.”
—Donizetti in an 1835 letter to Ricordi shortly before the premiere of Lucia di Lammermoor


On April 23, 1835, Donizetti and his wife, Virginia, arrived home in Naples after an extended absence, during which Donizetti had debuted in Paris with his opera Marin Faliero.  Though politely received, this opera had the misfortune of having to compete directly with Bellini’s latest blockbuster I Puritani.  Despite a more tepid reception in Paris than he would have liked, Donizetti was excited by the city itself and full of renewed ambition for a rewarding future in France.  Rossini had been nothing but gracious, and he had made many new contacts and friends.  Ever the pragmatic optimist at this point in his life, Donizetti viewed the trip as a success, and “Paris [as] a great city in which artists everywhere are honored, respected and well-received.”


Imagine his dismay, then, when he returned to find the Neapolitan theaters figuratively speaking, burning and near collapse.  The brilliant, ruthless, loud-mouth bully of an impresario, Domenico Barbaja had given up the reins of the Royal Opera Theaters of Naples, leaving them in the care of a committee of dilettantes dubbed the Società  d’Industria e Belle Arti.  One can imagine Barbaja gleefully laughing, “Good luck!” as he tossed them the keys and left.  This abandoned Donizetti, still contracted as musical director for the same theaters, to the unenviable task of sorting out a hornets’ nest of confusion.  His attempts were often undermined by a committee which reinvented every wheel he set into motion.  “A cage of madmen!” Donizetti fumed to Ricordi. 


In addition to trying to wrap his arms around the bedlam of the theaters, Donizetti had signed a contract with said madhouses to write three operas, the first of which was to premiere in July.  It was now May.  Stipulated in the contract, the composer was to receive a completed libretto, approved by the censors, four months before the opera was to be produced.  Though the first opera was due in two months, no such libretto had materialized.  On May 25, 1835, Donizetti submitted to the Società an outline of the scenario and required singers for his new opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, conceived in conjunction with the young librettist Salvatore Cammarano who had been recommended by the very same Società that was holding him up now.  Donizetti waited for approval.  He heard nothing.  On May 29th, in barely suppressed fury he wrote:


After having developed for you as clearly as possible with my letter of 25 May the reasons that have induced me to write Lucia di Lammermoor, I do not understand how you can want to attribute to my long indecision on the choice of subject the delay of the staging of the opera, in the course of the month of July;  permit me to tell you with my customary frankness that you should find amont the terms of the contract there is that one that says you sould have given me the book, approved by all authorities, on the first days of this past March.  While only a few days ago you placed at my disposition, as a result of my repeated urgings, the poet Signor Cammarano, with whom I came to an agreement directly on the subject above stated.  You should remember that when I myself placed in your hands a few days ago the plan on which was indicated the performers, not only did you approve the choice, but personally sent it to the censor, whence it came back approved for the scenic part, a formality which you could have well dispensed with, considering that urgency has often got us out of some difficulty.  The delay then does not come at all from my part; rather I would be within my rights to protest did I not trust in your loyalty.


Time flies, and I assure you that I can no longer remain in such perplexity, since I have other obligations.  Therefore, either be pleased to authorize the poet Sigor Cammarano to busy himself without delay on the plan of Lucia di Lammermoor already presented to and approved by the censor, and in that case I would regard myself as obligated to finish the work by the end of August, without insisting on the four-month period, allowed by the contract; otherwise, allow me to regulate myself, reverting to my rights strictly according to the terms of the contract and cancelling every easement offered by me in my earlier letter of the 25th of this month, and in this letter.


With Lucia di Lammermoor,  Donizetti and Cammarano were choosing source material with an excellent track record.  Sir Walter Scott’s recent novel, The Bride of Lammermoor was already a favorite, with some five operas already based on the bloodstained bride (one of which, rather remarkably, had a libretto by none other than Hans Christian Andersen!)  Sir Walter Scott enjoyed terrific popularity with his books.  He is generally considered the father of two genres:  the historical novel and the popular novel.  His books were inexpensive and accessible—and therefore, ubiquitous throughout Europe.  As a rule, Scott’s novels are well-researched and accurate as to time and place, full of rich details as to locale and dripping with political intrigue.  The Bride of Lammermoor is no exception.  In his forward, Scott describes the seed of truth from which his novel grew:  the sad story of Janet Dalrymple and David Dunbar, a vivid example of 17th century political machinations ending in tragedy.


Little is known of the ill-fated Janet Dalyrmple.  Her family was powerful, as were the Dunbars, and they were able to successfully hush up and muddy the details of the bizarre incident.  As many as five versions of this tale exist, each reflecting the political persuasion of the teller.  The bare bones of the events related by Scott are these:  The Dalrymples, anxious to solidify their political position, arranged a marriage for their daughter, Janet, with David Dunbar.  Unfortunately, Janet had made another choice, a poorer man, though of equally good breeding.  Janet’s mother, who, euphemistically, was a strong personality (accused, less euphemistically, by the domestics as serving Satan himself), little regarded such ephemeral connections as a young girl’s plight troth, and forced her daughter to face her beloved, renounce him and marry her parents’ choice.


We know little for sure of the outcome.  According to one of the tales, elaborated on by Scott, after the wedding, the bride and groom were secured in their bridal chamber as custom dictated.  Soon after, the guests heard such horrific screaming and inarticulate howling that they were forced to unlock the door.  What met the appalled spectators was a stabbed bridegroom, spread-eagled on the bed, his blood pooling around him, and a mewling, rocking bride cowering in the fireplace hissing, “Tak’ yon bonny bridegroom.”  From various conflicting reports of this singular event, Scott cobbled together a wildly entertaining novel which vacillates between gothic and historical romance.


What doubtless appealed to Donizetti and his librettist Salvatore Cammarano,  were the magnificent melodramatic possibilities offered by the doomed lovers.  Scottish history and politics meant little to Italians, but love held an endless appeal. Cammarano was a master of the striking dramatic image, and he most likely worked from the libretto for Michele Carafa’s Le Nozze di Lammermoor,  to strip away Scott’s political machinations ad culls the numerous cast of characters to a manageable number, utilizing composites to hyper-focus on the doomed lovers.


True to form and his promise, Donizetti finished the opera by July 6th.  Cammarano and Donizetti, working with a preternatural concentration completed the libretto and music in approximately five weeks, leaving plenty of time for rehearsals and the anticipated August opening.  But the theaters were in complete and utter disarray.  The San Carlo had declared bankruptcy, forcing King Ferdinando II to clean house, sweeping up all but a handful of directors.  Those left had an intimidating directive:  pull the theaters together—or else.


August 20th rolled around and Lucia was still not in rehearsal, though the copyist had received the score.  Rehearsals began, but Donizetti’s trials were far from over.  During rehearsals, the composer began to suffer from blinding headaches, which were an ominous bell tolling the progress of his disease into a new phase.  The headaches would continue throughout rehearsals and on into the fall and winter.


Probably more pressing to Donizetti, who was unaware of his illness, was that the Società was on the brink of complete disaster.  His leading lady, Fanny Persiani, had not been paid and was understandably refusing to rehearse.  Donizetti was unsure if or when he himself would be paid.  And, most tragically for the opera, the glass armonica player, Domenico Pezzi, for whom Donizetti had conceived the great Mad Scene, had quit and was suing the theater.  Donizetti scrubbed out the armonica part with his own hand and replaced the instrument with the flute, further illustrating Donizetti’s practicality as a composer.  Though the glass armonica, with its eerie, otherworldly timbre was imminently preferable for the Mad Scene, than the sweetness of the flute, Donizetti didn’t hesitate to substitute one for the other when his preference proved unavailable. 


As often seems to happen in the theater, some miracle occurred which ironed out all of these wrinkles, and Lucia di Lammermoor premiered on September 26, 1835.  It was an unmitigated triumph—a huge sensation which prompted the perennially modest composer to, in his understated way, write to Riccordi:


Lucia di Lammermoorhas gone on stage, and kindly permit me to shame myself and tell you the truth.  It has pleased, and pleased very much, if I may believe the applause and compliments received.  Many times I was called out and also the singers, even more times.  His Majesty’s brother, Leopold, who was present and applauded, paid me the most flattering compliments…Every piece was listened too with religious silence and hailed by spontaneous cheers…” 


In the years since its premiere, Lucia has never left the opera house, celebrated even by those critics who accuse Donizetti of being vapid, insipid and trivial.  Even Berlioz, who had little use for Donizetti or the bel canto genre, excepts Lucia di Lammermoor from his scorn.  Lucia became the embodiment of the 19th century Romantic ideal.  The opera became literary shorthand for doomed love, appearing in key scenes in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.


Lucia di Lammermoor more than anything besides Bellini’s untimely death three weeks after its premiere, cemented Donizetti as the lion of Italian opera for the rest of his active career.  Rossini was no longer composing, Bellini was dead, and Verdi had yet to write Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, or La Traviata.  It is difficult for us, with the benefit of an historical perspective to understand that before his death in 1848, Donizetti was the composer of note in Italy, not Verdi. 


Though for many years Donizetti’s music was maligned, today Donizetti is receiving a much deserved second look, which is beginning to acknowledge his genius.  Donizetti stands as an early romantic, paving the way for Verdi and Puccini.  In Lucia, he hints at Verdi’s palette with his timpani  and trombone in the prelude, recurring musical motives in the Mad Scene, and the incisive character and plot devices, all carefully calculated to take the greatest advantage of the “blood and thunder” telescoped into beautiful clarity by their mutual librettist, Cammarano. 


The criticisms aimed at Donizetti do not ring true to those who have heard his music, and are very much the product of a temporal accident.  Poor Donizetti had the misfortune to become Italy’s golden child just as German forms were on the rise.  Wagnerians are responsible for the general (and often unthinking) disparagement of Donizetti and his music.  This Germanic assessment is unfair and culturally myopic.  The Italians never shared the Germans’ passion for conflating philosophy and art.  Opera was written as popular entertainment.  Donizetti wrote 69 operas, compared to Rossini’s 39, Wagner’s 13, Verdi’s 25 or Puccini’s 10 (12 if you count Il Trittico as three one acts).  In that multitude, some are bound to be better than others.  Judged as Donizetti and his audiences would have judged his music, Donizetti is a master of fluid melody which eschewed unnecessary fioratura in favor of musicality and theatricality.  His orchestrations are original and highly effective.  Examined from today’s perspective, Donizetti’s operas are vivid examples of music theater designed to speak directly to the heart of an audience and to move them with emotional truth.  With Anna Bolena, L’elisir d’amore, Don Pasquale, La favorite, and Lucia di Lammermoor, to name but a handful of his masterpieces, Donizetti has earned—and achieved —immortality. 

Gaetano Donizetti
(November 29, 1797 — April 8, 1848)


“Vast is my mind; swift my genius; ready my fancy; and when I compose, I am lightening!”
— The character of “Donizetti” in Johann Simon Mayr’s one-act opera, Il piccolo compositore di musica, written in 1811 for his students, with the boy Donizetti playing himself as the eponymous character.


In 1806, Johann Simon Mayr, a deeply respected composer of opera and liturgical music in Bergamo, Italy and beyond, welcomed the first class of students to the newly established Lezioni Caritatevoli, a charity music school designed to train choir boys for Santa Maria Maggiore Cathedral.  Among these first boys, was a nine-year-old Domenico Gaetano Donizetti, unprepossessing now, but destined for great things.  It was Mayr who would notice, nurture and shape this boy’s talent. Mayr who would push him under the noses of the right people; Mayr who would wheedle the school’s board of directors to allow the boy to continue his musical studies, despite his unsatisfactory singing voice;  and Mayr who, when necessary, pried money from the purses of these same directors to send Donizetti off to Bologna to continue his studies.  Mayr was a tireless advocate for the boy, a consummate and selfless teacher whose influence on Donizetti went way beyond the musical sphere, coloring all of his attitudes toward music, fellow students, colleagues and rival composers.  In short, had there been no Mayr, there would be no Donizetti.


The words Mayr put into Donizetti’s mouth in the school opera he wrote for a group of his prize students (quoted above) would prove prophetic.  This boy, this buoyant, effusive soul, would go on to write sixty-nine operas, three oratorios, sixteen symphonies, one hundred ninety-three songs, forty-five duets, ten choral pieces, and twenty-eight cantatas.  And this list is merely representative.  There is still more only partially catalogued.


Gaetano Donizetti was born on November 29, 1797 into desperate poverty.  His father, Andrea eventually became a janitor and then the delivery man for the local pawn shop.  Gaetano was the fifth of six children born in the dingy, two bedroom basement apartment his father rented.  There was no history of or love for music in this family, until Gaetano’s generation broke the mold and made up for that lack.  His eldest brother, Giuseppe would rise to become the Chief of Music to the Ottoman Empire and live in Constantinople, far from his Bergamasc home, eventually awarded the honorific “Pasha.”  The middle brother, Francesco, suffering from some sort of mental disability, which allowed him only a modicum of independence after his parents’ deaths, played the cymbals in the Bergamo Civic Band. 


Andrea Donizetti knew little of music and feared for the fortunes of his family.  Given that Giuseppe was lost to him, first as a soldier and then to his career in Constantinople, and that Francesco was incompetent to be of financial help to the family, Andrea turned to his youngest son, Gaetano as the sole remaining support for his parents as they aged.  A charitable soul would empathize with Andrea’s lack of enthusiasm for Gaetano’s chosen career, and his anxiety in the early years of his son’s musical ambitions.  He could not recognize his son’s talent, nor appreciate it, and therefore constantly encouraged him to become the village organist. 


Fortunately, Donizetti had Mayr.


When Gaetano entered Mayr’s school, he did so on a three month probation.  His brother Giuseppe applied as well, but at eighteen was deemed too old to enroll.  Gaetano was to stdy voice and harpsichord.  At the time, the school was allowed to admit twelve students tuition free, eight of whom were to study voice.  (As previously stated, the primary purpose of the Lezioni Caritatevoli was to train choir boys for the cathedral.)  At his three month review in September of 1806, Gaetano’s progress seems to have been good:


In singing class:  diligent, attentive, has made progress in reading music, but his voice is defective and throaty.  In piano class:  diligent in attendance, quiet and attentive.  His progress is in accordance with his good disposition and attention to studies.


He was allowed to continue.  A year after his initial enrollment, he was Mayr’s star pupil.  Gaetano was awarded a cash prize.  But his voice remained obdurate.  He was not a gifted singer, and he was suspended from school for this lack in 1808.


Mayr was desperate.  Donizetti’s father wrote to the Board on his behalf.  Arms were twisted, and Gaetano readmitted.  Provisionally.  The following year, he was once again cut from the program.  Mayr began a full-scale assault on the Board to reinstate the boy.  Mayr proposed that the school be expanded to include boys whose voices were changing (a group which now included Gaetano), allowing them to continue to study the organ and harpsichord.


Mayr succeeded in his efforts.  Finally, he managed to secure a place at the music school until such time that he should be deemed ready to continue his studies elsewhere.  It was now that Mayr wrote the opera quoted at the beginning of this article.  The opera was a charming farce written for several students (including Donizetti) to star as themselves.  It included a moment to feature one of Gaetano’s own compositions and ended with a rather pointed moral to the Board of the school: 


“Whoever is bold enough to discourage another’s talent deserves rigorous punishment.”


Donizetti stayed at Mayr’s school until he was seventeen.  Andrea expected that now his son should settle into steady employment.  Mayr was determined that his gifted student should continue his studies with Father Stanislao Mattei, the best teacher of counterpoint available in Italy, and Rossini’s former teacher.  Mayr lobbied Gaetano’s father hard for permission for his son’s further education.  What is more, he raised the funds needed for him to do so.  In a letter to the Board he writes:


In the founding of the free music school…[the Council] has particularly taken as its aim the cultivation of budding musical talents, which deprived of financial support would have remained buried…Let me hope that the Illustrious Congregation will permit me to put forward my humble prayers on behalf of Gaetano Donizetti, a student who is about to leave the school.  Although not overly favored by nature with an outstanding voice, he is, however, gifted by inclination, talent and genius for composition, particularly with his readiness of fantasy in conceiving musical ideas which are not unsuitable for the setting of words…It would be a loss if this not mediocre talent were not cultivated in the most useful manner, and by the most solid and valuable means of instruction Italy can boast today…However, this youngster, lacking the means wherewith to aspire to such an advantage, and furthermore, calculating the benefit that would derive to himself and to his parents…and considering the honor that might redound to his native city that it should have formed a distinguished composer of music, several charitable souls [including, no doubt, Mayr himself] have had the goodness to offer generous support to maintain this youth for two years.  But these funds not being sufficient for everything, I am so bold as to beg the Illustrious Congregation, by an act of true charity directed toward the worthiest end, to deign to concur also with this support…

Your most humble, devoted and obedient servant,

Gio Simone Mayr

Donizetti spent the next two to three years based in Bologna, working very hard for the cold taskmaster Padre Mattei.  His counterpoint composition books from the time attest to his hard work and steady progress. 


In Bologna, Donizetti acquitted himself well, and earned the respect of his taciturn teacher Mattei.  Though Mattei respected his pupil, he in no way commanded the affection and devotion in the youth that his old master Mayr did.  A charming (and almost certainly apocryphal) story highlights the difference in the relationships.  Donizetti was always eager to prove that he was worthy of his mentor Mayr’s faith in him and wanted to give a worthy gift to his beloved maestro.  According to this story, told by Donizetti’s earliest biographers, Alborghetti and Galli, Mayr’s opera La Rosa Bianca e la rosa rossa was to be performed in Bologna during the 1817 Carnival season.  For some reason, the impresario refused to return not only the original score but its copy to Mayr.  Donizetti, hoping to help his master and sidestep the rascally producer, attended all three performances of the opera, and from memory transcribed it note for note.  He then presented Mayr with the “voluminous manuscript saying, ‘I wanted to exert my memory for you, and I hope that I have succeeded in doing something that pleases you.’”  Mayr, overwhelmed with pride and joy, then gave Donizetti the watch from his pocket and presented it to the youth who treasured it for the rest of his days.


Whether the story of the transcription is factually true or not seems niggling to debate (though the story has become tradition, none of Mayr’s operas are recorded as being produced in Bologna during the time that Donizetti studied there).  The story reflects the truth of Donizetti’s generousity of spirit, his depth of feeling for Mayr and his very real facility.  At any rate, the bit about Mayr’s watch is true, as Is the fact that Donizetti kept and treasured it.


At twenty-one, Donizetti finished his work in Bologna and, aided by Mayr, found work in a Venetian opera company headed by impresario Paolo Zancla.  Donizetti wrote four operas for Zancla, all of which are now essentially forgotten.  Although not his greatest works, the operas cannot be considered failures.  They earned Donizetti enough respect to win him a commission to write an opera for the Teatro Argentina in Rome.  Zoraide di Granata did very well, garnering the young composer praise from critics and the public.  This opera established Donizetti’s worth as a composer, and encouraged by his Roman accolades, he moved on to Naples.  Again, Mayr’s influence opened doors to the dashing Donizetti, whose self-discipline, innate rapport with colleagues, remarkable lightning speed and terrific talent kept open.


Naples would become his base of operations for much of his career—and, indeed, he considered it his home throughout his life, whether in Paris, Vienna, or on the endless travelling schedule his busy work life demanded of him.  Napoli was to be the site of his greatest personal tragedies, and he spent eight of his, what Verdi would have called his “galley years,” coping with the deaths of his closest family.


But first, he would revel in marital bliss.  In Rome, in 1828, Donizetti married the beautiful Virginia Vasselli, the youngest sister of his dear friend Toto Vasselli.  Donizetti adored this lovely young woman, and was adored in return.  His father, however, was not in favor of the wedding, though this was less an objection to Virginia or the Vasselli’s neither of whom he ever actually met, as to his never-ending fear that his son would no longer be interested in supporting his parents and older brother.  Donizetti assured his father that this was not the case in several testy written exchanges, and the deliriously happy couple began their life together in a third floor apartment near the Teatro San Carlo, where Donizetti had signed a rather remarkable contract to write four operas a year for three years, in addition to acting as music director.  This provided a steady income for the newlyweds, and does not seem to have precluded Donizetti writing operas for other companies as well.


Finally in 1830, his journeyman years were over.  Donizetti was quite prolific during the years from 1822-1832, and he established himself as a competent composer, appreciated for his craftsmanship and professionalism, but not estimated a great artist.  Then he wrote Anna Bolena, generally considered the turning point of his career.  With Anna Bolena, Donizetti finally sang with his own voice, shedding Rossini’s influence and utilizing orchestration to further color his characterizations.  For the first time, Donizetti put vocal acrobatics lower on his list of priorities than dramatic integrity.  As a result, Anna Bolena can truly be categorized as the first Italian Romantic opera.  The opera was remarkably popular and helped to define Donizetti as an international personality, with performances in England, Austria, Germany, Cuba, France and the United States.


Of Anna Bolena’s success, Donizetti wrote:

My Respected and Most Beloved Wife:


I am pleased to announce that the new opera of your beloved and famous husband has had a reception which could not possibly be improved upon. 


Success, triumph, delirium; it seemed that the public had gone mad.  Everyone said that they could not remember ever being present at such a triumph.  I was so happy that I started to weep, just think!  And my heart came close to you and I thought of your joy had you been present…


Now I am in Paradise and I cannot express my happiness.  I lack only a kiss from my Virginia which I will come to collect at the first chance…


By the beginning of 1831, Donizetti began to realize that he could not continue to write four operas a year and maintain any sort of quality.  In September of that year, Donizetti managed to renegotiate his contract, which left him with his primary job in Naples as music director and his involvement with the Naples Conservatory.


Following the success of Anna Bolena, he rapidly composed a number of operas which have since been forgotten.  In 1832, he churned out L’elisir d’amore in less than a month, an opera whose sparkle and charm continues to delight audiences today.  Again, in L’elisir Donizetti created a greater range of emotion for his characters by varying their musical language.  This was a significan departure from Rossini’s carefully constructed, elegantly wry comedies.


Four more operas were produced in the eighteen months between L’elisir and Lucretia Borgia, Donizetti’s next triumph.  This achievement led to a contract in Naples to write one opera seria per year for the Teatro San Carlo.  Through no fault of its own, Donizetti’s first offering Maria Stuarda failed miserably.  It had been plagued with problems from the premiere.  Undaunted, Donizetti provided the San Carlo with Marino Faliero in 1835.  Unfortunately for Donizetti, Bellini, his greatest rival (at least in Bellini’s mind—Donizetti had great respect for the younger man and his operas.  Bellini, meanwhile, was pathologically convinced that Donizetti was out to get him.), had just produced I Puritani which was a phenomenon with the public.  Donizetti’s next work, Lucia di Lammermoor was opera gold.  Once more Donizetti wrote in a white heat, setting pages as soon as his librettist’s ink was dry.  Happily, Lucia was immediately successful.


In 1837, Donizetti’s beloved wife died soon after she gave birth to their second son, who died almost immediately.  Virginia’s cruel death a month later capped eight years of unrelenting sorrows in which Donizetti lost his father-in-law, both parents, two infant sons, a little daughter, and now his darling wife.  Many of Donizetti’s letters echo the searing depths of his pain, though he would never again write Virginia’s name.  In one agonizing letter to his brother-in-law Toto he wrote, “Without a father, without a mother, without a wife, without children…Why then do I labor on?  Why?”  He closed the door of Virginia’s room and never again entered it.  He was thirty-nine years old and utterly bereft.


After Virginia’s death, Donizetti began to pursue women.  Some of this pursuit was attributed to his disease (syphilis), which at this point must have been latent but would start to show symptoms within five years of the loss of his wife.  In a letter to Toto, which shows his self-awareness as well as his sensitivity he explains, “There are moments when I could give myself in hand to a hundred women if they could distract me for an hour and I would pay what I could.  I try, I laugh, I hope, but I fall back further.  No one would believe it, because I never reveal to anyone my internal sadness…”


Later as his mental and physical state deteriorated, his skirt chasing became compulsive and would lead his desperate nephew to commit him to an insane asylum from which it would take eighteen long and anxiety-riddled months to free him.  But that sad chapter is yet to come.


His inconsolable grief over the loss of Virgina, combined with disenchantment with his life and position in Naples sent Donizetti to Paris.  Here, Donizetti reworked Lucia for French audiences and wrote La fille du régiment, Les martyrs and La favorite in rapid succession.  An indication of how far Donizetti’s reputation as an artist had evolved involves Mendelssohn.  Mendelssohn had in 1831 see one of Donizetti’s weaker operas, which left him of the opinion that Donizetti composed too much, too fast, too confident of his lightening pen and too reliant upon one or two good set pieces to carry the opera.  A fair assessment at the time, especially since Mendelssohn had yet to see Anna Bolena.  But his estimation of Donizetti had grown as Donizetti did.  Given his former opinion, some friends of Mendelssohn’s were dining with him and “excoriating La fille du régiment and appealed to Mendelssohn, hoping he would cap their denunciations with a well-turned phrase, but imagine their embarrassment when Mendelssohn said, ‘I am afraid I like it.  I think it very pretty—it is so merry.’  Then, bursting into one of thos fits of hearty gaiety which lit up his beautiful countenance in a manner never to be forgotten, ‘Do you know,’ said he, ‘I should have liked to have written it myself!’ (Quoted in Donizetti by William Ashbrook from Thirty Years’ Musical Recollections by Henry Chorley)


The last of Donizetti’s operas never achieved great popularity, although modern audiences have found much to admire in the melancholy melodies of Caterina Cornaro and Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal.  The commercial failure of Dom Sébastien was particularly upsetting to the composer who had hoped to touch audiences with this somber tragedy.


Donizetti’s disintegration into madness is terrible reading.  He was in Paris after Dom Sébastien expecting to return to Vienna where he was contracted as the court composer, a position which Mozart had held many years before him.  His increasingly bizarre and erratic letters filled his far-flung correspondents with hideous anxiety.


…Since last night my poor brains have made me suffer…I suffer!  The surgeon this morning peeled pulled and cut!  …They held me with my head high.  What pain! …I am seized with melancholia, which my tremendously sensitive nerves feel and I want to weep…


His behavior was devolving at an alarming rate—strange, compulsive, forgetful, repetitive actions alarmed his Parisian friends.  At last, after urgent missives to Donizetti’s elder brother Giuseppe, his nephew, Andrea, was dispatched to assess the situation and bring his Uncle Gaetano back to Italy, if possible.  The subsequent assessment of various doctors’ and the seeming lack of support from Italian friends, coupled with Francesco’s [1] refusal to grant him power of attorney pushed Andrea to commit his uncle to the asylum at Ivry, some short distance from Paris.  Unfortunately, Donizetti was left there confused and terrified, convinced that he had been accused of stealing his own carriage.  He issued desperate, pathetic letters begging for help to various and sundry of his influential friends; letters which were never sent.


Eventually, Andrea returned home to Constantinople.  Donizetti’s disease progressed inexorably, his paralysis leaving him unable to raise his head or uncurl his hands, or walk without assistance.  Still he was alone at Ivry with infrequent visits from friends.  He ceased to speak.


Meanwhile, the rumor mill was grinding away in three countries, many blaming Donizetti’s family for “dump[ing] him in a public hospital.”  At last, Andrea returned and began the long process of getting him released from Ivry.


By this time, illness and isolation had taken its toll.  No longer could anyone fear that Gaetano would endanger himself if moved from Ivry, but rather that the act of moving him would be harmful.  Andrea worked tirelessly to release his uncle from France and return him to Bergamo.  Intrigues and roadblocks met him at every turn until finally he brought in the Austrian government to make an intercession on his behalf. (Donizetti, as a citizen of Lombardy was also an Austrian citizen, as well as still being under the employ of the Emperor.)  The threat of an international incident was enough to finally release Donizetti into Andrea’s care and get him back home.


After Donizetti arrived in Bergamo, he lived only another six months and his final days were excruciating.  He died on April 8, 1848, surrounded by friends.


These last indignities belie the vibrant, ebullient soul evidenced in Donizetti’s music and his personal dealings.  Throughout his life, Donizetti remained generous with family and friends and supportive of his fellow composers.  Many critics have dismissed Donizetti for not being a Mozart or even a Rossini, but not a one of them wrote so many works, so quickly as did Donizetti.  The quality of Donizetti’s works vary wildly, much more due to the vagaries of tardy or inferior librettos and the illogical, damaging and puritanical hack jobs various censors inflicted upon his work than to his music.  Donizetti considered music a business and created high-quality music-theater on a deadline.  Sweet, effervescent melodies and dramatic integrity characterize the best of Donizetti’s operas, bridging the gap from the bel canto to the Romantic periods of Italian opera.


[1] Donizetti’s addled elder brother was sustained by a monthly allowance provided by the composer and feared that should Donizetti become lucid again, he would be infuriated.  This created no end of problems for Andrea.

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