In June 1988, La Scala of Milan presents L’Elisir d’Amor, one of the summits of Donizetti’s works. The audience laughs, protests, whistles at the performance of this opera which was to be “rejuvenated”.
At Bordeaux, some time earlier on, a bottle of wine of this name will be the unique star all evening.
At the Opéra Comique, a little time before then, the jugular movements of the nutcracker chin (Sutherland obliges !) of La Fille du Régiment just about got the better of the glottal movements deemed to salute France. Donizetti remains fashionable and his librettists, too.
The Bride of Lammermoor (La Fiancée de Lammermoor), 1819, will inspire Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto for Lucia di Lammermoor (26 September 1835, Teatro San Carlo di Napoli) ; Kenilworth ; Guy Mannering (1815) and The Monastery (1820) that of Scribe for La Dame Blanche by François Adrien Boïeldieu ; The Lady of the Lake, Tottola again but this time for Rossini in La Donna del Lago ; The Fair maid of Perth (1828) will be at the origin of J.H. Vernoy de Saint-Georges’ and J. Adenis’ libretto for La Jolie Fille de Perth by Georges Bizet ; finally The Pirate based on Charles Maturin’s libretto is not a total stranger to Il Pirata (Milan, 1827) by Bellini.
This is a review of the entire, or nearly, musical romanticism with Gaëtano Donizetti one of its outstanding representatives.
Born in Bergamo in Venetian Lombardy 28 November 1797, the composer learns the rudiments of music at the municipal music school of Bologna, an institution attended before him by Rossini, Donizetti will write more than 75 operas in 25 years, in addition to masses, cantatas, one miserere, some ten salon pieces (Musical Matinées) after composing his first opera Enrico di Borgogna during his military service while stationed at Venice
It is sufficient to note the titles of these 19 operas in ten years, demonstrating as they do prolific celerity :
Il falegname di Livonia, Le nozze in villa, Zoraida di Granata, La Zingara, La lettera anonima, Chiara e Serafina o Il pirata, Il fortunato inganno, Aristea, Una Follia (already), Alfredo il grande, L’ajo nell’imbarrazzo, Emilia, Alahor in Granata, Il Castello degl’Invalidi, Elvida, Olivo e Pasquale, Il borgomastro di Saardam, Le convenienze Teatrali, Otto misi in Due ore.
Of all these works scribbled down not without haste, Zoraïde di Granata, performed in Rome, was the only one to see some success.
With L’Esule di Roma, composed for Naples in 1828 Donizetti rises in the public favour.
Always at the double and to meet his engagements, with the impresarii, the composer also produces : Alina, Regina di Golconda, Gianni di Calais, Il Giovedi Grasso o Il nuovo Pourceaugnac, Il Paria, Elisabetta al Castello di Kenilworth, Il Diluvio Universale, I Pazzi per progetto, I melda de Lambertazzi, La Romanziera and Francesca di Foix.
Francesca di Foix ? If some audacious producer had the idea of staging this latter work, is there a more appropriate setting than the town Evreux and its Hôtel de la Biche (Hind Hotel) for such an artistic venture ?
Indeed Françoise de Foix, daughter of Gasto Febus (much admired by François I), countess of Chateaubriant, born in 1475, sister of the count of Lautrec and of the marshal of Foix, was married very young to Jean de Laval-Montmorency, lord of Chateaubriant, in Brittany, who took her to the court. There she inspired François I with a keen passion, but was superseded in the king’s heart by Mlle d’Heilly, duchess of Etampes and remained a butt for her husband’s jealousy. Very romantic adventures and legends are told about her, among them that of a rendez-vous with the king in the very location of the present-day Hotel de la Biche which jealously guards her memory.
Françoise de Chateaubriant had come back to the court in 1536 after the liberation of François I, a captive in Spain. When she had lost the king’s heart, the latter sent for the jewelry he had given her and on which had been engraved the amorous mottos composed by Marguerite de Navarre (the “ Margerideto” of the Songs of the County of Foix. (Cf : Gabriel Fauré, Musicien d’Ariège, (fr, en, de), September 1988).
Françoise de Foix died 16 October 1537. A Clément Marot was needed to pay a just homage to her : The Countess had them melted down and said to the gentleman in charge of Françoise I’s order : “Take this to the king and tell him, since he had given me so liberally, I return and send back to him by way of gold ingots. As for the mottos, I have imprinted and reviewed them so well in my mind and hold them there so dear, that I could not suffer anyone but myself to dispose of them, enjoy them and have pleasure from them”. The king (admire the beautiful illumination which represents him in 1532 in the company of Claude d’Urfé) sent the ingots back to her.
Under this tomb lies Madame de Foix,
Of whom everyone wanted to speak well,
And while speaking thus never a single voice
Came forward to contradict.
With great beauty, with grace, which attracts,
With good knowledge, with prompt intelligence,
With assets of honour and better than told,
God eternal richly endowed her.
O Wanderer! to shorten the account,
Here lies a nothing, there where all was triumphant.
After Anna Bolena (episode of the life of Henry VIII of England : Anne de Boulen - with the help of the scaffold- makes room for her rival Jane Seymour) and Gianni di Calais (who will pass unnoticed) Donizetti gives free rein to his pen and produces : Fausta, Ugo, Conte di Parigi, L’Elisir d’Amore, Sancia di Castiglia, Il Furioso di San Domingo, Parisina, Torquato Tasso, Lucrezia Borgia, Rosmonda d’Inghilterra, Maria Stuarda and Gemma di Vergy, pieces where he gives proof of the same conceptional facility but with a tendency to inceasing gravity.
In 1835 the management of the théâtre italien in Paris arranges a kind of competition between the 3 most notable composers of Italy : Donizetti with his Marino Faliero, Bellini and his Puritani di Scozia, Mercadante and I Briganti : the crown will be for Bellini.
Donizetti then composes his Lucia di Lammermoor, an opera where madness occupies a dominant place - as is well-known - just as it must have had a grip on the composer’s spirit when he lost nearly at the same time his wife who was 28 years old and his only son. How not to think of Verdi’s destiny and of his Traviata, capolavoro assoluto come out of similar tragedies. It is then followed in 1837 by Roberto Devereux, Count of Essex (Evreux again !) and La Fille du Régiment (performed at the Opéra Comique without great success) while the Académie Royale de Musique is preparing to stage Les Martyrs (drawn from Corneille’s Polyeucte and Chateaubriand’s Martyrs (Chateaubriant again !). La Favorite arrives, the height of all his works (Richard Wagner will reduce its score for cornet). But its success will be laborious in spite of all the talent of Rosine Stoltz.
After having conquered France (Berlioz complains in the Débats : “Mr Donizetti treats us like a conquered country. This is a veritable invasion”. Maestro orgasmo (that is what he is called...) leaves for Bergamo where he arrives as a prophet in his own country. He still writes Adelia for Rome, Maria Padilla for Milan, Linda di Chamounix for Vienna, which earns him the title of an Imperial conductor, (a job denied to Beethoven) Don Pasquale for Paris, Maria de Rohan for Vienna, Dom Sébastien for the Paris Opera.
However, there is already a premonition of a “ follia”. The excess of work and also the aftermath of some sad former illness lead to a sudden weakening of his intellectual faculties. His mental health changes for the worse. He has to stay in a so-called, euphemistically, rest-home at Ivry, then at La Barrière of the Etoile ; he passes away at Bergamo (where his nephew took him) in 1848 : he was 51 years old.
“Donizetti”, Fétis wrote in 1836, “is now professor for counterpoint at the royal college of Naples, he is very capable of meeting the demands of this post, for he has ken and he is nearly the only one among the young Italian composers worthy of such praise”. Let us add that Donizetti had, in addition, a perfect knowledge of the art of singing and accompanied superiorly at the piano. He even wrote the libretto of several of his works...
Which, all things considered, leaves without candles most of our knights of the Chandelier, does it not ?
Claude d’Esplas (Les Merlufleaux)
Translation : Dagmar Coward Kuschke (Tübingen)