b. Bergamo, Italy, 29 November 1797; d. Bergamo, 8 April 1848
'Music for the Italians', noted Berlioz, 'is a sensual pleasure and nothing more. For this noble expression of the mind they have hardly more respect than for the art of cooking. They want a score that, like a plate of macaroni, can be assimilated immediately without having to think about it.' If any one composer could be said to live up to this prejudice, it is Donizetti, the master of opera as vocal exhibitionism. Donizetti's note-spinning melodramas fell from favour very soon after his death, as the qualities that had ensured their enormous success during his lifetime – their easy tunefulness, undemanding plot lines and simple characterization – came to be perceived as faults. Along with Rossini and Bellini, Donizetti recovered some of his respectability during the bel canto (Lucia di Lammermoor and The Elixir of Love) revival of the 1950s, yet his stock remains unfairly low compared to the other members of the bel canto trinity. Surface might prevail over substance in the operas of Donizetti, but there are few more gorgeous operatic surfaces than the one he created in works such as L'elisir d'amore and Lucia di Lammermoor.
From a poor family, the young Donizetti was fortunate to find a teacher in Simon Mayr, who taught him for ten years without accepting payment. As a student in Bergamo, he undertook every commission that came his way, no matter the fee or the theatre, and not until Mayr pushed some Venetian commissions his way did he begin to establish some provincial celebrity. A batch of comic operas written for Naples brought him to the attention of La Scala, who in 1830 commissioned Donizetti to write Anna Bolena – his first international success. In 1832 he composed his great comedy L'elisir d'amore, following it with three dramatic masterworks: Lucrezia Borgia (1833), Maria Stuarda (1834) and Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). By the decade's end he was Italy's pre-eminent composer.
However, in 1838 his patience with life in Italy began to wear thin, chiefly on account of the interference from the censors, and he moved to France when he failed to obtain the directorship of the Naples conservatory. Acceptance in Paris wasn't easy, but 1840 was a breakthrough year, with the premiere of his hugely popular comedy La fille du régiment and of La favorite, his first successful Grand Opéra.
In 1842 he was appointed to a post in Vienna's Habsburg court and for a while, despite worsening syphilis, was able to divide his time between France and Austria. He composed his comic masterpiece, Don Pasquale, in 1843, but in the following year his health finally began to collapse and he was confined to an asylum. His condition worsened until, physically and mentally paralyzed, he was moved back to Bergamo, where he died five months after his fifty-first birthday.
Donizetti produced seventy-three operas, and they constitute only a fraction of his output. Though never an innovator, he did much to relax the divisions between aria and recitative, increased the role and widened the expressive range of the chorus, and helped establish the cavatina and the cabaletta as features of Romantic opera.
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