Learn all about the great Donizetti and his "lost" opera, L'Ange de Nisida
With the help of conductor Mark Elder and musicologist Roger Parker, we delve into the life and music of the great composer and “maniacal worker,” Gaetano Donizetti, whose unknown opera L’Ange de Nisida is getting its world premiere at the Royal Opera House on July 18 and 21.
What are some of the core facts we should know about Donizetti?
Mark Elder: What I love about Donizetti is that he was a very lovely, charming man. His contemporary, Bellini, wasn’t. Verdi could be charming but was actually a very difficult man, he wasn’t social. Donizetti was charming and everybody admired and liked him.
Roger Parker: He was born in 1797, died in 1848, so therefore is someone who should be called “Romantic” in the broadest sense. Donizetti was, unlike most composers (!), a kind man, full of humour, not envious.
His greatest tragedy, apart from his sad end in disablement and syphilis, was the death of his wife Virginia in 1837: he could hardly bear to mention her name in subsequent years.
Did this tragedy feed into his music in any way?
RP: This kind of thing can be easily overstated in musicians: to write sad music you don’t need to be sad! The interesting thing about his mourning for his wife was that, for a time, he found be couldn’t write at all—couldn’t concentrate. Of course, in his last years, he was utterly incapacitated: no music survives from this period apart from a few very sad doodles—attempts at writing that failed utterly.
Tell us a bit more about his extraordinary work ethic.
RP: He was a furious worker all his life, writing around 70 operas in 25 years; and when eventually insanity took over in the last years of his life, it had the form of imagined worry about deadlines for new operas.
He was, in all things, pragmatic. If a libretto wasn’t to his liking, he would try to get around the problems. He didn’t agonise. Also, though, he was content to write within the standard forms of Italian opera in his day, and so didn’t experience the agony of having to invent new forms of communication.
"The French wanted excitement and novelty"
ME: He had this capacity to work at speed—and that isn’t necessarily a good thing because you can create second-rate work if you work too fast. But what’s interesting about Donizetti is that the time that he’d spend working on an opera didn’t have anything to do with whether it was good or not.
Sometimes he would write a very good piece in a very short time and sometimes he would write a terrible piece in a short time. He worked, physically, very fast. Not all composers do. Mozart did. Shostakovich did. Donizetti did.
How did Donizetti have to adapt his style for the French public?
ME: The French public liked to enjoy different things from the Italians. The French loved the words to be full of action and interest, they liked being involved in the psychology of the drama, and they liked the music to reflect that. So they wanted excitement and novelty.
What they didn’t want was for the singers to be too acrobatic and show off their own techniques as singers. They didn’t like virtuosity in vocal music. They wanted the story to be presented to them through the music in a very powerful way.
That didn’t mean that the singers couldn’t have a certain amount of virtuosity. But by this time, 1840, the Italians were very used to vocal gymnastics. How the singers would make the Italian audience swoon because they could go very quiet or very high or very low!
The French weren’t so interested in that. They wanted the whole show to sweep them along. The novelty of the drama was very important to them. They wanted the music to be full of colour. The Italians were less experimental in that way.
How did Donizetti compare to his contemporaries and what influence did he have on later composers?
RP: Donizetti’s earliest operas sound very much like Rossini, but quite soon he adapted that style to something less frenetic and rhythmically driven, and also more passionate and Romantic. Partly this was to do with vocal style: in general in the later operas there is much less ornamentation than in Rossini, and much more declamation and “realistic” singing. In this sense, he is like Bellini (who also overcame the Rossini craze of his time), and in similar ways; but Bellini wrote far fewer operas, and always retain a love of classicism that Donizetti generally avoided.
He had a huge influence on Verdi which remained strong even in the middle and late period of Verdi’s career. Rigoletto owes a huge debt to Lucrezia Borgia; Aida owes a huge debt to Poliuto. The list could go on endlessly: it’s very difficult to imagine Verdi’s genius without Donizetti preceding him.
Two 20th century composers who showed their interest in Donizetti are Britten (the Italian opera spoof in the final scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is pure Donizetti) and Stravinsky (which shows in many places the influence of Don Pasquale).
Tell us a bit more about L’Ange de Nisida.
ME: What I enjoy about Donizetti’s operas is that he’s always trying to find something new in the libretto to interest the public and to find the best way to set it to music.
The first thing he’d do was he’d find the subject. I think he really liked the subject of L’Ange de Nisida because it had to do with the hidden power of what keeps people together—the hidden things that aren’t obvious. Music is always good at characterising the inner life of the heart. So I could see that, musically, it was a great subject for Donizetti.
"He tried to show to the public that he had taste"
And there’s something about the Italian spirit that must be understood by the performers. Especially when the performers aren’t Italian. The Italian spirit is very excitable, nervous in a broad sense, changeable, mercurial—and all that is in the music.
The role of the orchestra here is very expressive, delicate and full of atmosphere. Much more than it would’ve been if it had been written for Naples or Palermo. The orchestration is exquisite, and the writing for the wind instruments is full of charm. He tried to show to the public that he had taste—it was very important for the French.
Why did so many of his operas fall into oblivion?
RP: The surprising thing, really, is that so many of them survived for so long. Italian opera at that time was (a bit like the film industry in decades past) fundamentally driven by new works, which were always judged to have more prestige than “mere” revivals. But in a sense, he was on the cusp of the new regime, in which “repertoire” opera began to take over.
The vast majority of operas during this period (indeed, during any period) fell into oblivion very soon after their first performances. Operatic works were regarded as essentially ephemeral.
Are there many other Donizetti operas that have been forgotten?
ME: Many. You know, he wrote 65 operas. And some of them exist in more than one version so it’s difficult to say exactly how many operas he wrote. But if we say a minimum of 65, there would probably be at least 35 pieces that people wouldn’t know. And what we’ve been doing [with Opera Rara] for the past few years was finding the ones that are really good and strong, and try and do good performances and recordings of them.
Where would you recommend to start with Donizetti if you’re new to his work?
RP: In two areas. One is with the great comic works: L’elisir d’amore is as fresh and, yes, as funny now as it was 150 years ago, and also strangely relevant to our times.
The other is with one of the serious operas, and one of the best places to start is with Lucrezia Borgia, which is as radical as anything he wrote in that Donizetti experiments constantly with strangeness of the plot (the leading character, Lucrezia, is in many ways a villain, but has—by the operatic rules of the day—to sing beautifully), and comes out with something that, in its rapidity of action, is in some scenes almost filmic.
ME: L’Ange de Nisida is a perfect piece for someone who’s never heard anything by Donizetti. The music is direct, full of rhythm and melody. The essential qualities about music, that is to say, melody, harmony and rhythm, are very clear in Donizetti. His music was designed to appeal and to please audiences, not to confuse them. There’s nothing intellectual about this music at all.
Its organisation needs a lot of intellectual concentration and judgement, of course, but for the public, it will seem effortless and brilliant. And his music is extremely enjoyable on first hearing.
Sir Mark Elder is an English conductor, the music director of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester and artistic director at Opera Rara.
Roger Parker is an English musicologist and Professor of Music at King's College London.
Opera Rara will be giving the world première of Donizetti's L'Ange de Nisida at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on July 18 and 21