“Music for the Italians”, noted French composer Hector Berlioz, “is a sensual pleasure and nothing more. For this noble expression of the mind, they have hardly more respect than for the art of cooking. They want a score that, like a plate of macaroni, can be assimilated immediately without having to think about it.” Them’s fighting words!
While Donizetti’s crowd-pleasing operas may not measure up compared to his contemporaries, he did have an artistic vision, which was to bring closer together the drama of the story and the beauty of the music. He often didn’t have the best circumstances to create music of depth: he was a composer for hire, with commissions and impatient impresarios with demanding deadlines.
Most operas at this time were a vehicle for the lead singers to show off. Donizetti was, in the beginning, happy to accommodate, but later on wanted to put the dramatic needs of the story before any gratuitous high notes. Donizetti’s finest opera is Lucia di Lammermoor, (“Lucy of Lammermoor”) his daring attempt to reconcile his devotion to gorgeous melody with his ongoing interest in character development. He is considered, along with fellow Italian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, the predecessor to Giuseppe Verdi.
The formidable soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland, sings the “Mad Scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor, in which the emotionally fragile Lucia has gone mad and killed her bridegroom. This scene features singing that has launched many a soprano’s career, if not confirming it.
Gaetano Donizetti was born November 29, 1797, in Bergamo, Italy, and died April 8, 1848, in Valtesse, Italy.