San Francisco Opera | Profile: Gaetano Maria Donizetti

Profile: Gaetano Maria Donizetti

Born on November 29, 1797 in Bergamo and baptized Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti, the future composer was the fifth of six siblings. In 1806, Donizetti was admitted to the music school in Bergamo. There, he was guided by Giovanni Simone Mayr, the distinguished Bavarian composer famous for his operas throughout Italy. Mayr recognized Donizetti’s budding talent and gave him additional instruction in composition and music theory. A lifelong friendship evolved, and Mayr assiduously provided opportunities for his protégé at the beginning of his career.

During Donizetti’s education, he displayed a gift for composing rapidly. Mayr cast him in the title role of a two-act farce, Il piccolo compositore (The Little Composer), performed by the music school’s students at the end of 1811. The text included eerily prescient verses that reflected on Donizetti’s personality and musical gifts. He improvised a waltz at a piano and sang, “Ah, by Bacchus, with this aria, I’ll have universal applause. They’ll say to me ‘Bravo Maestro!’ I, with a sufficiently modest demeanor, will go around with my head bowed…. I’ll have praises in the newspapers, I’ll know how to make myself immortal…. My mind is vast, my talent speedy, my imagination at ready, and I am like lightning at composition.” Such speed served Donizetti well throughout his career. His output measured sixty-five operas in twenty-seven years.

After further studies in Bologna, and with the help of Mayr, Donizetti landed his first professional engagement at the Teatro San Luca, Venice. The opera was Enrico di Borgogna, which premiered on November 14, 1818. A lukewarm reception greeted the opera, since the audience was more interested in the newly redecorated auditorium than in the performance. Such was the public indifference that the opera received only two additional performances. Not until 1822 did Donizetti enjoy a true success, this time in Rome on January 28 at the Teatro Argentina with Zoraida di Granata. After the first performance, the enthusiastic public cheered the composer with a torchlight parade accompanied by a military band. Donizetti’s name spread throughout Italy. By this time, he had composed seven operas in six years, most however, now forgotten.

Shortly after his exhilarating Roman experiences, Donizetti accepted an offer to compose operas for theaters in Naples. He eventually became music director of Neapolitan court theaters, which included the renowned Teatro San Carlo. Up to 1838, when Donizetti resigned his position, twenty-eight operas in sixteen years received their first performances in Naples—including his best known, Lucia di Lammermoor.

During that time, Donizetti enjoyed a period of personal happiness from his marriage on June 1, 1828 to Virginia Vasselli, whose brother was one of composer’s closest friends. In 1830, Donizetti achieved his true artistic breakthrough with one of his best works, Anna Bolena, staged on December 26 at the Teatro Carcano, one of Milan’s three opera houses and rival to the renowned La Scala. Commissions began to pour in from not only Naples, but also Rome’s Teatro Valle (Il furioso nell’isola di San Domingo [1832] and Torquato Tasso [1833]) and Florence’s Teatro Pergola (Parisina [1833] and Rosmunda d’Inghilterra [1834]).

Donizetti also wrote for La Scala, staging twelve different operas up to the first performance of Lucrezia Borgia on December 26, 1833. His first experience at La Scala was in October, 1822 with Chiara e Serafino, but resulted in a flop, even with twelve performances. After the premiere of Lucrezia Borgia, La Scala staged more than fifty of Donizetti’s operas during his lifetime. The Teatro Canobbiana, under the management of La Scala, followed with four productions, the most prominent being L’Elisir d’Amore on April 27, 1832. Difficulties with finances of the theaters and, more significantly strict censorship began to sour Donizetti’s relationship with Naples. The excessive need to avoid references to religious themes as well as to royalty or to the ruling Bourbon family hindered the creation of effective librettos—an extremely challenging task, even today. Such complications prevented Donizetti from presenting Maria Stuarda, foreseen for the San Carlo. Instead, La Scala gladly gave the opera its premiere on December 26, 1835 two months after Lucia di Lammermoor.

Donizetti never lost sight of his determination to reach the pinnacle of opera, which was to stage a new work in Paris. He succeeded with a production of Marino Faliero on March 12, 1835 at the Théâtre Italien. However the greatest prize, Paris’s grand Opéra, continued to elude him. Then tragedy struck when his beloved wife Virginia died in July, 1837. She was only twenty-nine-years old. Grief-stricken, Donizetti resigned his positions in Naples and moved to Paris in 1838.

The City of Light provided a fresh locale for the composer. He received a commission from the Opéra-Comique to provide a light-hearted work, which resulted in La Fille du Regiment premiering on February 11, 1840. At the same time, he converted Poliuto, originally rejected by the Neapolitan censors, into Les Martyrs. That opera, after difficulties with the management and singers at the Opéra, opened on April 10, the same year as Fille. Donizetti’s greatest Parisian success was La Favorite, which received its premiere on December 2, 1840. La Favorite made its debut and went on to be a pillar of the Paris Opéra repertory, clocking in with over 600 performances. The Vienna Court Opera also beckoned; Donizetti accepted a contract to create Linda di Chamounix, which was a great success at the Karntnertortheater on May 19, 1842.

A feverish pace was maintained with more compositions and revivals in Italy, Vienna, and Paris, the most significant being Don Pasquale at the Théâtre Italien on January 3, 1843. He continued his projects, among which was an ambitious opera, Dom Sébastian, roi de Portugal. Sadly, the manic energy betrayed Donizetti with his final illness of syphilis that would incapacitate him mentally and physically. On February 1, 1846 Donizetti was committed to an asylum in Ivry, a Parisian suburb. The composer’s nephew petitioned for custody one year later, which was eventually granted. The authorities released Donizetti, and he was brought back to Bergamo where he died on April 8, 1848.


Dr. Evan Baker is an educator, writer, and lecturer on operatic history and production. He contributes regularly to several publications, including San Francisco Opera Magazine.

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