Among famous Italian composers we must include Donizetti, who was born at Bergamo, November 25, 1797, nearly six years after the birth of Rossini; and though he began his career at a very early age, he never achieved any important success until after Rossini had ceased to compose. Having completed his studies at the Conservatorio of Naples, under Mayr, he produced at Vienna, in 1818, his first opera, “Enrico di Borgogna”, which was rapidly followed by “Il Falegname di Livonia” (Mantua, 1819). His “Zoraide di Granata”, brought out immediately after “Il Falegname” at Rome, procured for the young imitator of Rossini exemption from the conscription, and the honor of being carried in triumph and crowned at the Capitol.
The first work, however, by Donizetti which crossed the mountains and the seas and gained the ear of all Europe, was “Anna Bolena”, given for the first time at Milan in 1830. This opera, which was long regarded as its composer’s masterpiece, was written for Pasta and Rubini. It was in “anna Bolena”, too, as the impersonator of Henry VIII, that Lablache made his first great success. The graceful and melodious “Elisir d’Amore” was composed for Milan in 1832. “Lucia di Lammermoor”, perhaps the most popular of all Donizetti’s works, was written for Naples in 1835, the part of Edgardo having been composed expressly for Duprez, that of Lucia for Persiani. The lively little operetta called “Il Campanello di Notte” was produced under very interesting circumstances, to save a Neapolitan manager and his company from ruin. “If you would only give us something new our fortunes would be made,” said one of the singers. Donizetti declared they should have an operetta from his pen within a week. But where was he to get a libretto? He determined himself to supply that first necessity of the operatic composer; and, recollecting a vaudeville which he had seen some years before at Paris, called “La sonnette de nuit”, took that for his subject, rearranged the little piece in operatic form, and forthwith set it to music. It is said that in nine days the libretto was written, the music composed, the parts learned, the opera performed and the theater saved.
Donizetti seems to have possessed considerable literary facility. He designed and wrote the last acts both of the “Lucia” and of “La Favorita”; and he himself translated into Italian the libretto of “Betly” and “La fille du regiment”. Donizetti had visited Paris in 1835, when he produced, at the Theatre des Italiens, his “Marino Faliero”. Five years later another of his works was brought out at the same establishment. This was “Lucrezia Borgia” (composed for Milan in 1834); of which the run was cut short by Victor Hugo, who, as author of the tragedy on which the libretto is founded, forbade the representations. “Lucrezia Borgia” became, at the Italian Opera of Paris, “La Rinegata”, the Italians of Alexander VI’s court being changed into Turks. “Lucrezia” may be ranked with “Lucia” and “La Favorita” among the most successful of Donizetti’s operas. “Lucia” contains some of the most beautiful melodies in the sentimental style that its ingenious composer produced; it contains also a concerted finale which is well designed and admirably dramatic.
The favor with which “Lucrezia Borgia” is everywhere received may be explained partly by the merit of the music, which, if not of a very high order, is always singable and tuneful, partly by the interest of the story, partly also by the manner in which the interest is divided between four principal characters, so that the cast must always include four leading singers, each of whom is well provided for by the composer. But of the great dramatic situation, in which a voluptuous drinking song is contrasted with a funeral chant, not so much has been made as might have been expected. The music effect, however, would naturally be more striking in the drama than in the opera; since in the former singing is heard only in this one scene, whereas in the latter it is heard throughout the opera. “Lucrezia Borgia” may be said to mark the distance halfway between the style of Rossini, imitated by Donizetti for so many years, and that of Verdi, which he in some measure anticipated: thus portions of “Maria de Rohan” (1843) might almost have been written by the composer of “Rigoletto”.
In 1840 Donizetti revisited paris, where he produced successively “I Martiti” (which as “Poliuto” had been forbidden at Naples by the censorship); “La fille du regiment”, composed for the Opera Comique, and afterward brought out in the form of an Italian opera, with added recitatives; and “La Favorita”, represented a the Academie. Jenny Lind, Sontag, Patti, Albani, all appeared with great success in “La Figlia del Reggimento”, but when “La fille du regiment” was first brought out, with Madame Thillon in the chief part, it produced comparatively little effect. “La Favorita”, on the other hand met from the first with the most decided success. It is based on a very dramatic subject (borrowed from a French drama, “Le Comte de Commingues”), and many of the scenes have been treated by the composer in a highly dramatic spirit. For a long time, however, it failed to please Italian audiences. The fourth and concluding act of this opera is worth all the rest, and is probably the most dramatic act Donizetti ever wrote. With the exception of the cavatina “Ange si pur”, taken from an unproduced work, “Le Due d’Albe”, and the slow movement of the duet, which was added at the rehearsals, the whole of this fine act was composed in from three to four hours.
Leaving Paris, Donizetti visited Rome, Milan, and Vienna. At Vienna he brought out “Linda de Chamouni”. Coming back to Paris, he wrote (1843) “Don Pasquale” for the Theatre Italien, and “Dom Sebastien” has been described as “a funeral in five acts”, and the mournful drama to which the music of this work is wedded rendered its success all but impossible. As a matter of fact it did not succeed. The brilliant gaiety, on the other hand, of “Don Pasquale” charmed all who heard it, as did also the delightful acting and singing of Grisi, Mario, Tamburini, and Lablache, for whom the four leading parts were composed. For many years after its first production “Don Pasquale” was always played as a contemporary piece, but the singers perceived at last that there was a little absurdity in prima donna, barytone, and basso wearing the dress of everyday life; and it became usual, for the sake of picturesqueness in costume, to put back the time of the incidents to the eighteenth century. “Don Pasquale” and “Maria di Rohan” (Vienna) belong to the same year; and in this last opera the composer shows much of that earnestness and vigor for which Verdi has often been praised. Donizetti’s last opera, “Catarina Cornaro”, was produced at Naples in 1844, and apparently made no mark. This was his sixty third work, without counting two operas which have never been played, the “Duc d’Albe”, composed to a libretto originally meant by Scribe, its author, for Rossini, but which Rossini returned when, after “Guillaume Tell”, he resolved to write no more for the operatic stage, and a piece in one act composed for the Opera Comique.
Donizetti, during the last three years of his life, was subject to fits of melancholy and abstraction which became more and more intense, until he was attached with paralysis at Bergamo, where he expired April 8, 1848. Buried some little distance outside the town, his remains were disinterred in 1876 and reburried within its limits.