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Born on November 29, 1797 in Bergamo, Italy, composer Gaetano Donizetti enjoyed tremendous popularity throughout Europe. His operas, together with Bellini’s, came to epitomize the Italian Romantic spirit of the 1830s.
Donizetti was given free admission to Simon Mayr’s school for choir boys when he was nine years old, and Mayr proved to be a major influence on the composer. In 1814, he provided Donizetti with the financial and moral support he needed to move to Bologna to study counterpoint (the use of multiple melodies). Three years later, when Donizetti returned to Bergamo having decided he would be a composer of opera, Mayr secured a contract for him with a company in Venice for which Donizetti wrote four operas.
Donizetti’s first notable work was his production of Zoraida di Granata in Rome in 1822. For the next several years he produced two to five operas a year, from one-act farces to full-length serious works; these were presented in Naples, Rome, Palermo and Genoa. In 1828 Donizetti married Virginia Vasselli, and although she bore them three children, none survived infancy. Virginia herself was stricken with cholera and died an early death in 1837. The loss of her companionship is said to have had a profound and lasting impact on the composer.
1830 saw Donizetti’s first international success with Anna Bolena, and by that time he had written 23 operas. Although his next opera was a fiasco, L’elisir d’amore, produced in 1832, set things right again. His controversial Maria Stuarda premiered in 1834.
In 1835, Rossini invited Donizetti to visit Paris to present Marino Faliero at the Théâtre-Italien. This was Donizetti’s first experience with opera in the grand tradition, and he was impressed with the artistic standards and the lucrative pay. Although he returned to Naples later that year to write and produce Lucia di Lammermoor (based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor), he did not stay long. The death of his wife and his disillusionment with the operatic world of Naples prompted Donizetti to move back to Paris in 1838.
During his first two years in France, Donizetti’s operas were performed in four Paris theatres, much to the chagrin of contemporary French composers. He rewrote the score of Lucia for a French production, and though not the artistic success of the Italian original, the exposure it received established his reputation as an eminent European composer. Among the many operas Donizetti wrote in his later years were La fille du régiment (1840), La favorite (1840), Don Pasquale (1843) and Dom Sébastien (1843). Don Pasquale became an overnight success at Paris’s Théâtre-Italien and was widely regarded as a comic masterpiece.
In rehearsal for his last opera, Dom Sébastien, Donizetti’s behavior became erratic and obsessive. It was discovered that Donizetti was suffering from cerebro-spinal degeneration of syphilitic origin, and he was sent to a sanatorium near Paris. Although he was returned home to Bergamo in October 1847, Donizetti was paralyzed and unable to speak more than monosyllables. He was attended by friends and family until his death on April 8, 1848.
Hasmik Papian as Elisabetta in the Dallas Opera production of Roberto Devereux. Photo: Karen Almond © 2009