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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Donizetti’s Lesser Known Operas—An Overview

Depending upon which source you care to believe, Gaetano Donizetti composed between 65 and 70 operas. One reason for this confusion involves the revision of existing operas versus the creation of new ones. For example, the “Don Gregorio” that he wrote for Teatro Nuovo (Naples) in June 1826, is generally considered to be a revision of “L’Ajo Nell’imbarazzo,” which premiered at Teatro Valle (Rome) in February 1824. Yet “Gregorio” includes an entirely different cast of characters, a slightly altered story line, and several newly composed arias. Should these be counted as two distinct works, or one? What about “Poliuto”? This opera was dismembered by the Neopolitan censors over its portrayal of Christianity in the original libretto. It was not until the piece was reincarnated in Paris as “Les Martyrs” that audiences were presented with the original story line. Again, are these the same operas, or two separate ones?

Arguments such as these aside, Donizetti was an incredibly prolific composer. Stories abound as to his ability to “dash off” a composition in short order, and he oftentimes found himself at odds with his librettists—notably the sluggish Felice Romani—because their ability to supply him with lyrics lagged behind his ability to set their words to music.

When comparing Donizetti’s output to that of his successors—especially the top composers from the romantic and verismo periods—his sheer volume fairly staggers the imagination. From 1839 (“Oberto”) to 1871 (“Aida”), a span of 32 years, Giuseppe Verdi wrote 24 operas. Giacomo Puccini composed 12 operas in 40 years, three of which were short pieces known collectively as “Il Trittico.” Mascagni managed 15 operas (plus one operetta, “Sì”) in 50 years. Gounod created a dozen operas over 37 years (1851–1888), while Giordano wrote 11 operas during the same amount of time (1892–1929).

The first opera Donizetti is acknowledged to have written is “Il Pigmalione” in 1816. This was a student piece that did not receive its premiere until 1960 (!), when it was performed at Teatro Donizetti in the composer’s home town of Bergamo, Italy. His first opera for public consumption, “Enrico di Borgogna,” was first seen at Teatro San Luca (Venice) in November 1818. The last opera he wrote that premiered during his lifetime was “Caterina Cornaro,” first performed at Teatro San Carlo (Naples) in January 1844. Even taking the lower of the two numbers, Donizetti averaged one opera every 21 weeks over the course of his 26 years of active composition.

During the Baroque era, it was not uncommon for composers to write large numbers of operas. Many of these men were “house” composers, living off stipends from monarchs or other rich patrons, and therefore able to devote most of their waking hours to writing music. Also, many of these compositions were little more than singing plays, comprised of stand-alone songs linked by spoken dialogue. Few of these operas ran more than a couple of acts each, and quite often tunes were reused from one work to another.

Antonio Salieri is credited with 46 operas, ranging in subject matter from a lowly laundress (“La Locanderia,” 1773) to a Persian monarch (“Palmira, Regina di Persia,” 1795). One of the most prominent opera composers in 18th century London and Paris, Antonio Sacchini, wrote 47 operas. His most famous, titled “Oedipe à Colone” (1786), received its debut at Versailles Palace and was reportedly performed nearly 600 times in its first 50 years. Interestingly enough, “Oedipe” received its American debut only last year—staged by Opera Lafayette at the University of Maryland—and was recorded by Naxos. Domenico Cimarosa is credited with 94 operas.

Many people are familiar with the story of Verdi working on “La Traviata” while “Il Trovatore” was in rehearsal. In contrast, during the period of January 1826 through December 1827, Donizetti opened seven new operas and revised two earlier pieces for additional performance. Now that’s cranking ’em out!

Whether using the yardstick of number of performances over the years, how often they were recorded, or simply their popularity among the opera-going public, the general consensus remains that Donizetti composed eight major operas. These would include (in order of vocal appearance) “Anna Bolena,” L'Elisir d’Amore,” “Lucrezia Borgia,” “Maria Stuarda,” Lucia di Lammermoor,” “”Le Fille du Régiment,” “La Favorite,” and “Don Pasquale.” A quick search of OperaBase shows 116 separate productions of Donizetti operas from August 2005 through the end of 2006. Fully 106 of those productions involve one of the aforementioned eight operas. Only six of his operas not included above have or will be performed during these 18 months—“Don Gregorio” (1826), “Le Convenienze ed Inconvenienze Teatrali” (1831), “Roberto Devereux” (1837), “Rita” (1841), “Maria di Rohan,” (1843) and “Dom Sebastien” (1843)—and nearl all of these are a single production each.

Over the next few postings I look forward to exploring some of Donizetti’s lesser-known operas, in particular those that have come out on CD over the past several dozen years.

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