By 1843, Europe blazed with romanticism: Delacroix explored new territory in the visual arts, Hugo and Dickens pushed fiction to new and epic dimensions, and Chopin and Liszt found new musical idioms expressing an age of passion and experimentation. The spirit of romanticism burned brightly in opera as well; Verdi's Nabucco had premiered the year before, and Wagner would soon follow with The Flying Dutchman.
But even experienced opera-goers may be surprised to realize that the same year that witnessed the premiere of The Flying Dutchman also saw the debut of Gaetano Donizetti's Don Pasquale, an opera more easily associated with the radiant comedies of Rossini and Mozart than with the expansive passion of the early masterpieces of Verdi and Wagner. While Verdi and Wagner stretched their wings, the only slightly older Donizetti seemed to be seeking to revive the golden age of opera buffa, or reach even further back to the stock characters of lecherous old man, maiden, suitor, and forger, who had peopled street theater for generations.
But was the composer of Don Pasquale really stuck in the past? There are important clues that indicate otherwise.
Donizetti, just sixteen years older than Verdi and Wagner, had grown up in a different era. Although neither Verdi nor Wagner had an easy journey to success, Donizetti, born in a windowless basement in Bergamo, both literally and metaphorically was forced to fight his way up in the world. Not for him was the heroic image of the composer, created by Beethoven and willingly assumed by Wagner and Verdi. For Donizetti, the composer of opera was the slave of the box office and the servant of the singer. And, as soon as he was able to slip a foot in the door of the opera house, he devoted himself to learning everything he could from the performers themselves.
The singers he encountered there were riding on the final wave of the decades-old tradition of bel canto (literally "beautiful singing"), which prized a combination of vocal beauty and flexibility that sometimes bordered on musical athleticism. With the public still accustomed to a constant flow of new operas, the young Donizetti wrote his ticket by learning the strengths of a given singer and writing vocal parts that showed off those particular strengths. If the singer had a good B-flat, there would be plenty of B-flats. If a singer had a weak descending scale, or was short of breath that season, the music would avoid those weaknesses and offer plenty of opportunities to show off a singer's strengths. The singer looked good: and, incidentally, so did the composer.
Still, with the ghost of childhood poverty ever lurking in his psyche, Donizetti developed simultaneously, along with his talent for writing for the voice, an astounding work ethic, churning out as many as four complete new operas annually at the height of his career.
However, he was also doing something else that was frequently overlooked by both his contemporaries and posterity: while knocking out one opera after another, and developing a network of singers who relied on his ability to make them sound their best, he also experimented, very subtly, with structure and means of expression: just like all the other romantic composers of the day. But, while many of them, led by Wagner, would blast forward into the second half of the century with bigger orchestras and cyclical structures stretching over hours, Donizetti took his version of romanticism in a different direction, exploring the possibilities of a quiet instrumental solo in the middle of a lively overture, or of a singer accompanied by a single instrument. And he continued to find ways to communicate emotional depth, not through spectacle or grandeur, but within the florid melodies and the traditional harmonies his audiences, employers, and singers still expected.
In 1830, Donizetti attained the sort of success he had dreamed of during his impoverished youth with the premiere of Anna Bolena, in which he achieved a winning combination of bel canto tradition and romantic emotion. Rather than rest on his laurels, he continued his hectic compositional pace and, as the 1830s progressed, began producing operas regularly for Paris and Vienna as well as for theaters across Italy. The over forty operas he produced between the premiere of Anna Bolena in 1830 and the end of 1841 included tragedies such as Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux, as well as the comedies L'elisir d'amore and La fille du r_giment. But the apex of his output, and one of the most amazing accomplishments in all musical literature, came in 1835, in Lucia di Lammermoor. There, inspired by a heroine from a novel by Sir Walter Scott, Donizetti created a scene in which a soprano, accompanied by a single flute, successfully expresses the complexity and desolation of a helpless woman betrayed by forces outside her control and gripped in the claws of insanity.
Unfortunately, personal tragedy overtook Donizetti in the midst of his greatest success, in 1837, with the death of his beloved wife Virginia. Facing life as a childless widower, he locked himself in his room for six days, re-emerging to resume his madcap schedule as frantically as ever. Even then, in spite of personal sorrow, he continued to produce comedies as well as tragedies. In 1842, powerful and famous enough to chose his own subjects, he turned to a thirty-year-old libretto (which at least one commentator traces back to a play by seventeenth-century British playwright Ben Jonson), revised and brought up to date, to the surprise of his audiences, with modern dress.
It's natural, because of plot and traditional division of the work into arias and recitatives, to view Don Pasquale as a sort of final installment of the tradition embodied in earlier works such as Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini's The Barber of Seville. But the attentive listener and viewer of our time can notice plenty of earmarks indicating that romanticism is in full bloom in Don Pasquale. The recitatives are accompanied by full orchestra, rather than a keyboard, as in the operas of Mozart and Rossini. The characters are all carefully drawn with attention to pathos as well as comedy. In Don Pasquale, set forms such as arias have a way of defying expectations, turning into duets, or shifting to a different singer midway through. Even the melodies and harmonies, when listened to with an analytical ear, have more in common with Mendelssohn and Chopin than with either Mozart or Rossini.
With a public apparently delighted by a comedy that brought together innovation and a clear sense of tradition, Don Pasquale scored a huge success at its premiere in Paris, and was quickly picked up by major houses in Europe, appearing in America (New Orleans) as early as 1845.
But, unlike Don Pasquale, Donizetti had no happy ending ahead: instead, the composer suffered a fate similar to Lucia, complete with dementia. For the death of his wife Virginia in 1836 turned out to be part of a larger tragedy: In retrospect, it's fairly apparent that Virginia died from a complication related to syphilis, and that she contracted the infection from her own husband. Donizetti's symptoms, which had begun to appear before the completion and premiere of Don Pasquale, worsened rapidly, and he lived the last two years of his life as an institutionalized invalid, comforted and supported by a devoted circle of family and friends.
Still, there was a happy ending of another sort, albeit with several twists along the way. Although many of Donizetti's operas continued to be performed throughout the nineteenth century, his tradition-based expressiveness fell on deaf ears in the 1900s, and singers who could navigate the special demands of bel canto became nearly extinct.
As the twentieth century moved toward its final decades, however, a new generation of singers who combined power and agility: best characterized by sopranos Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland: began to revive the operas of Donizetti, aided in no small measure by notable productions at the Dallas Opera in its early seasons in the 1960s. Today, Lucia and three of Donizetti's comedies, including Don Pasquale, are firmly entrenched, while Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux are also a part of the canon at major houses around the world. Thus, with four tragedies and three comedies apt to appear in any given season at any of the world's major opera houses, the nearly starving lad from the slums of Bergamo has posthumously won a unique status as the composer of a wider range of comedies and tragedies than any other composer in the standard operatic repertoire of the early twenty-first century. While Wagner and other romantics were busy writing what they thought of as the "music of the future," Donizetti, by combining a strong sense of tradition with an ability to innovate within that tried-and-true framework, wrote music that also proved to be "music of the future." The larger-than-life heroes and gods Wagner forged in the fire of his imagination continue to speak to audiences, roaring above giant orchestras: but no more truthfully than the gentle, comical, and eternally warm human beings brought to life by Gaetano Donizetti in his charming and deceptively brilliant Don Pasquale.
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