Born in a ten-year period, Rossini, Donizetti, and their younger compatriot Vincenzo Bellini virtually define the period in opera known as "bel canto" where the production of beautiful vocal tones is the ideal. Even when gripped in madness and deepest despair, the heroes and heroines of these operas manage to turn out smoothly sung lyrical phrases and sparkling vocal display. Fans of the voice per se delight in this music. Other opera fans, who want the emotion of the story to hit them in the heart or gut, find it shallow when compared to Verdi and composers to follow.
Donizetti sprang from a family of artisans; his father was a weaver in his hometown of Bergamo, Italy. Donizetti received a solid musical education in Bergamo and in Bologna, and completed his first opera in 1818. The story has it that four years later the composer, having been conscripted into the army, scored such a success with the opera Zoraide di Granata that the military authorities exempted him from further service so he could pursue a full-time compositional career. This is a myth. The truth is that in 1818 a wealthy lady named Marianna Pezzoli Grattaroli bought him out of the draft.
For the first phase of his career, commentators have concluded, the highly prolific composer was virtually an imitator of Rossini and little else. Of course, if one has to be an imitator, there are few imaginable better choices than the most popular, most prolific, and most skilful of opera composers then living. The 32 operas Donizetti produced from 1818 served as an apprenticeship of sorts. Gradually, as in the 1826 Elisabetta, his own compositional personality starts to emerge, to burst forth full-blown in Anna Bolena of 1830 (even though in this opera he does swipe the melody of "Home Sweet Home," probably for purposes of evoking the British setting of the story.) Great success, especially in the field of comic opera, followed, and in 1837 he was appointed director of the Naples Conservatory. However, personal and artistic disappointment soon followed; while in grief over the death of his wife, he had continuing troubles with the royal censors, who banned his new opera, Poliuto. These problems impelled him to relocate to Paris, where, within two years, he had successfully staged four new operas.
Signs of illness began to appear and for a while he lost the ability to concentrate to the extent of writing major works. A visit back to Italy was unsuccessful (it included another bout with the censor) and he went on to Vienna where he received an appointment as Kapellmeister to the Austrian court. He wrote four more operas including the comic masterpiece Don Pasquale during this period, but his behavior became more erratic. In 1846 he was diagnosed as suffering cerebro-spinal degeneration caused by syphillis, of which he died in 1848.
While certain of his operas, particularly the comic favories L'Elisir d'amore, Don Pasquale and La Favorita have never been out of the repertoire, the revival of interest in the bel canto era in our times has shown that Donizetti's huge catalog of operas contains many great scores in both the tragic and comic vein. He also wrote vast amounts of choral, vocal, orchestral, piano, and chamber music, the vast majority of which is but little explored. ~ Joe Stevenson LIST OF DONIZETTI'S OPERAS (type of opera, then year of composition): Il Pigmalione (scene drammatica) (1816) L'ire d'Achille (1817) Enrico di Borgogna (semiseria) (1818) Unafollia (farsa) (1818) Le nozze in villa (buffa) (1819) Il falegname di Livonia (buffa) (1819) Zoraida di Granata (seria) (1822) La zingara (semiseria) (1822) Chiara e Serafina o I pirati (semiseria) (1822) Alfredo il grande (seria) (1823) Il fortunato inganno (buffa) (1823) L'ajo nell'imbarazzo o Don Gregorio (buffa) (1824) Emilia di Liverpool (semiseria) (1824) Alahor in Granata (seria) (1824) Elvida (seria), 1826 Gabriella di Vergy (seria) (1826, two acts only) Olivo e Pasquale (buffa) (1827) Otto mesi in due ore (opera romantica) (1827) Il borgomastro di Saardam (buffa) (1827) Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali (farsa) (1827) L'esule di Roma (seria) (1828) Alina, regina di Golconda (semiseria) (1828) Gianni di Calais (semiseria) (1828) Il Giovedi Grass (farsa) (1828) Il paria (seria) (1829) Elisabetta, o Il castello di Kenilworth (seria) (1829) I pazzi per progetto (farsas) (1830) Il diluvio universale (azione tragica-sacra) (1830) Imelda de'Lambertazzi (seria) (1830) Anna Bolena (seria) (1830) Gianni di Parigi (comica) (1831) Francesca di Foix (semiseria) (1831) La romanziera e l'uomo nero (buffa) (1831) Ugo, comte di Parigi (seria) (1832) L'elisir d'amore (comica) (1832) Sancia di Castiglia (seria) (1832) Il furuoso all'isola di San Domingo (semiseria) (1833) Parisina (seria) (1833) Torquato Tasso (seria) (1833) Lucrezia Borgia (seria) (1833) Rosmonda d'Inghilterra (seria) (1834) Maria Stuarda (seria) (1835) Gemma di Vergy (seria) (1834) Marino Faliero (seria) (1835) Lucia di Lammermoor (seria) (18353) Belisario (seria) (1836) Il campanello di notte (farsa) (1836) Betly, ossia La cipanna svizzera (giocosa) (1836) L'assedio di Calais (seria) (1836) Piu de' Tolomai (seria) (1837) Robert Devereux (seria) (1837) Maria di Rudenz (seria) (1838) Poliuto (seria) (1848) La fille du regiment (opera comique) (1840) Les martyrs (French version of Poliuto) (grand opera) (1840) L'ange de Nisida (1839) La favorite (grand opera) (1840) Adelia (seria) (1841) Rita, ou Le mari battu (opera comique) (1841) Maria Padilla (seria) (1841) Linda di Chamounix (sermiseria) (1842) Caterina Cornaro (seria) (1844) Don Pasquale (buffa) (1843) Maria di Rohan (seria) (1843) Dom Sebastien, roi di Portugal (grand opera) (1843)