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14 august 2022

Actes Sud publishes a series of lovely compact lives of composers: brisk, informative, clearly and directly written. Though they're short popular books, Philippe Thanh's entry on Gaetano Donizetti bids to be a standard work: there are very few biographies of Donizetti available, compared to his peer composers. So few that I couldn't find one in English at all, but was happy to read Thanh's. The back of the 2005 paperback says that Thanh's is the first comprehensive book on Donizetti in French.

Donizetti, the common wisdom goes, didn't have much of a life at all; all he did was write music. About 75 operas in 30 years, and many other compositions besides. If you were an impresario in early-19th-century Italy and you needed a new show fast, Donizetti was your man.

Professional musicians have been peripatetic sorts since the field professionalized, and Donizetti (1797-1848) was no exception. From Bergamo, where he was born and trained, Donizetti went to where the work was, at the major operatic venues of Italy. For a long time he was resident in Naples, but eventually settled into a three-cornered existence: Paris, Italy, and Vienna – the last, after the post of director at the Naples conservatory went in 1840 to his rival Saverio Mercadante. In Vienna, Donizetti was appointed Kapellmeister to the Austrian court, becoming one of Mozart's successors in that position.

Opera being what it is, Donizetti had cool relations with Mercadante and with Vincenzo Bellini, his main Italian competitors. By contrast, Donizetti had the support of Rossini (who retired from opera early in Donizetti's career), and in turn supported the young Verdi, who always acknowledged Donizetti as a master. With other potential rivals like Adolphe Adam and Giacomo Meyerbeer, Donizetti stayed on better terms, because his work didn't overlap as much with theirs (Italian opera at the time possessing a very distinctive style, and even an official venue in Paris, the Théâtre-Italien). Hector Berlioz provides a counterpoint in Thanh's exposition, with his droll and sometimes acid remarks on Italian opera in general, a phenomenon Berlioz found silly. But even so, Berlioz found much to commend in Donizetti's work.

Donizetti married once and was widowed young; none of his and his wife Virginia Vasselli's children survived long. (The deaths of all may have been due to the syphilis that Donizetti contracted before marriage.) He seems to have kept in touch by letter with his family of origin, though rarely visiting them in Bergamo. An older brother, Giuseppe, became court composer to the Ottoman Empire and though friendly with his more famous sibling, rarely got West to see him. Donizetti's father and other brother were bouncers at a pawnshop, if I am translating "portier au mont-de-piété" (17) correctly; perhaps they had slightly more white-collar duties. But it remains that the two composing Donizettis did not come from a family with musical background or connections.

Strangest of all the anecdotes in the book is that of Donizetti's skull. Something after the manner of Dante, Donizetti's remains have great reliquary value, and have been fussed over by the city of Bergamo since he left them behind. At some point, the composer's head got detached, and during one of his exhumations, the decapitation became a minor scandal. Authorities tracked down the cranium to a local charcuterie, where the proprietor was using it as a vide-poche for his loose change. The skull is now officially back in place atop the rest of the body.

Despite these interesting biographical backgrounds, Thanh's book necessarily becomes a string of "and then he wrotes"; there is something to the idea that Donizetti did nothing but compose. Thanh supplies information on every opera that Donizetti wrote, as well as some of his other compositions. We learn about the process and difficulty of his work (though it was never very strung-out in the case of any single work), about his relations with librettists and producers, and about critical reaction.

Donizetti was halfway through his career, with thirty productions behind him, before he scored big with Anna Bolena in 1830. In two senses: Anna Bolena was his first major international hit, being picked up by opera companies across Europe and the Americas; and it was his earliest piece that remains in the repertory today.

But not uninterruptedly. Thanh notes that from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, Donizetti was represented in the repertory by just five operas: the comic pieces L'Elisir d'Amore (1832), La Fille du Régiment (1840), and Don Pasquale (1843); La Favorite (1840); and of course Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), which both fans and academics would rate as his greatest work. As those scattered dates suggest, Donizetti never had a period where he was consistently producing masterpieces. Imperishable works alternated with completely forgotten ones. The process of canonization never stops. La Favorite is now rarely performed as a whole, and known mainly for the highlight aria "Ange si pur" / "Spirto gentil."

The Donizetti renaissance started in the 1950s, according to Thanh, when Maria Callas appeared in Anna Bolena, and the "three queens" (with Maria Stuarda, 1835, and Roberto Devereux, 1837) emerged to present a more serious side of the composer. The queens plus the comedies plus Lucia now account for most of the Donizetti performed, but several other operas (Lucrezia Borgia 1833, Linda di Chamounix 1842, Poliuto 1848, among others) see the stage from time to time. Very few composers have more operas in current circulation than Donizetti.

The only ones I've seen on stage are the three warhorse comedies, which remain in constant use. But there are lots of great recordings. Thanh presents a guide to the best Donizetti discs – as of 2005, of course, but there was a huge amount of material even 17 years ago, and direction is welcome. I was chuffed that I already owned so many of the best recordings, even buying them semi-blindly in used-book stores: Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti in Elisir and La Fille, Montserrat Caballé in Lucrezia Borgia. My three-queens CDs all feature Beverly Sills, and I wouldn't trade them for anything. Thanh remarks that the role of Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux "excède nettement ses moyens" (167), clearly was more than Sills could handle, but he praises the sheer dramatic energy of the recording, all the same. I strongly agree.

My favorite among my Donizetti recordings is Maria Callas in Lucia (with Giuseppe Di Stefano, conducted by Tullio Serafin), which is one of the most astonishing records I have ever heard: and according to Thanh, it wasn't even Callas' best effort in the role. That would be a live recording done in Berlin, conducted by Herbert von Karajan – and now on my watch list for future bookstore rambles.

Thanh, Philippe. Donizetti. Arles: Actes Sud, 2005.