Gaetano Donizetti: European Romanticism and The Pathway to Verdi

Note from William: In celebration of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the San Diego Opera, I will be re-printing program notes that the opera company commissioned me to write. The third of these, re-printed with the kind permission of the copyright holder, the San Diego Opera, will be the program notes for their January 2013 performances of Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment).”



January 2013 begins the bicentennial celebration of the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s birth. What better time to acknowledge Verdi’s debt to his friend and mentor, Gaetano Donizetti, only 16 years Verdi’s senior?

In the early 19th century Italian opera followed rigid conventions, designed to concentrate the audience’s attention on the vocal skills of the singers, rather than the story. Opera singers expected the musical content of the roles to be tailored to their particular voices. The prima donna insisted on having a showpiece aria at her first entrance.

[Below one of the principals in the world premiere of Donizetti’s “La  Fille du Régiment” – Mécène Marié de l’Isle, whose daughter, Célestine Galli-Marié, 36 years later, was the original Carmen of Bizet’s “Carmen”; resized image of an historical lithograph.]

Formula governed the content and order of succession of the arias, duets and larger ensembles. At a point in each opera, the principals were expected to assemble onstage to sing together, whether or not their presence onstage had anything to do with the opera’s plot.

Arias had to have specific numbers of syllables rhymed in particular ways. The poetic sound of the words being sung was so important that the opera’s librettist, rather than the music’s composer, often dominated the creative team. Poetry trumped drama.

This Italian operatic conservatism was to erode rapidly in the 1830s and 1840s led by Donizetti and Verdi, both of whom embraced the Romantic movements in art, drama and literature, in which strong emotions, heroic action, and passionate love were the prevailing themes. The operas that Donizetti composed abound with these sentiments.

In later times, some writers coined the phrase bel canto opera to describe the works that followed the conservative formulas of the early 19th century, applying the term to operas by Donizetti and two other Italian composers – Gioacchino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini. But the identification of Donizetti with bel canto obscures his special contributions to Italian opera.

[Below: two of the principals in the world premiere of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment – Juliette Borghèse (left), the original Marie with Henri Deshaynes, the original Sulpice; resized image of an historical lithograph.]


Rossini’s last opera was composed in 1829 and Bellini’s in 1835, before Romanticism’s transformation of European literature and art fully impacted opera. With Bellini’s death at age 31, Donizetti was undisputedly the leading Italian opera composer until Verdi’s ascendancy. With now frequent performances of all three composers’ main operas, modern audiences can see how the three bel canto opera composers differed from one another.

Rossini dominated the Italian opera stages during the 1810s and 1820s. While he challenged many of the conventions, he preferred to compose in a florid style that encompassed much of the baroque and classical approaches to vocal performance. One convention he used was writing the role of an older man for a tenor, while assigning the role of a young, virile man to a female voice. As an example, General Calbo, who leads the Venetian troops in Rossini’s Maometto II, is sung by a mezzo-soprano.

The composer who perhaps best deserves the bel canto designation is Bellini, whose languid melodies inspired the piano works of Chopin. But Bellini’s early death assured that, instead of his long, finely spun melodies that slowed an opera’s pace, mid-19th century Italian opera would embrace the more vigorous styles that Donizetti championed.

At the moment in history when the audiences for Italian opera had become receptive to the high-octane plots conceived by the Romantic poets and dramatists, Donizetti was there to write melodic forms that enhanced the forward motion of the drama and fit the intense action of the Romantic stories.

In the 1830s, just as the career of Donizetti was taking off, passionate Italian tenors, who belt high C’s at dramatic moments, began to achieve popularity. Donizetti perfected a fast-paced dramatic style in which tenors and sopranos exude passionate love and suffer fate’s consequences. Donizetti jettisoned other traditions of the Italian opera, such as the conventional formulaic libretto, in order to advance the dramatic emphasis. Famously, he hired a teenager as the librettist of his opera Maria Stuarda, who would write the scene in which Mary Queen of Scots, calls the first Queen Elizabeth a vil bastarda, just the way Donizetti wished it.

[Below: a lithograph cartoon representing Gaetano Donizetti at work; resized image of an historical lithograph.]


Donizetti synthesized some of the older conventions, such as the showpiece arias that we associate with bel canto, with the projection of emotions as developed by Romantic drama and comedy. He adapted the conventional techniques of vocal display (coloratura) to create theatrical effects. The famous “mad scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor provides a dramatic context to the trills, runs and arpeggios that the soprano uses to display her vocal agility, while conveying the pathos of Lucia’s mental deterioration.

As Donizetti’s fame grew during the early 1830s, Verdi, first as a music student in Milan, and then as a young composer, took note of the new directions that Donizetti was taking Italian opera with Romanticism by embracing action-driven and emotionally textured stories. This set the stage for Verdi’s masterpieces to come. Musicologists have noted many striking examples of a Donizetti musical passage that appears to be the direct inspiration for one of Verdi’s. For example, both the party scenes and the ironic conversations of conspirators in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia obviously influenced similar scenes in Verdi’s Rigoletto.

During his lifetime, Donizetti achieved great success as an operatic composer in Italy, France and Austria, with a prodigious output. His operas encompassed both dramatic works, such as Lucia di Lammermoor, Lucrezia Borgia and Maria Stuarda, as well as the romantic comedies The Elixir of Love, Don Pasquale and The Daughter of the Regiment.

There was one area of opera in which Verdi never matched Donizetti’s excellence – the romantic comic opera. No composer was as successful in this genre as Donizetti. Ironically, a few days after Verdi’s only try at a romantic comedy, Un Giorno di Regno, failed miserably at Milan’s La Scala (with only a single performance in 1840), Donizetti’s Italian revision of Daughter of the Regiment became a big success. (The original French version of Daughter of the Regiment is now the preferred version for performance internationally.)

Contemporary audiences easily relate to the humanity of the characters in Donizetti’s romantic comedies, such as Marie, Tonio and Sergeant Sulpice in Daughter of the Regiment. Even when the setting of Daughter is moved forward into the 20th century, as it is in the Emilio Sagi production being seen in San Diego, the comic scenes have a contemporary feel.

In 1840 Donizetti was the world’s leading composer of opera, successful not only in the Italian operatic capitals but in Vienna and Paris as well.  Characteristically, Donizetti was able to create successful operas to meet the tastes and requirements of the theater for which he was composing a comic opera, Don Pasquale, for Vienna; a grand opera, La Favorite, for Paris’ Opéra; the French version of Daughter of the Regiment for Paris’ Opéra-Comique, and an extensively revised Italian version for Milan’s La Scala; each reflecting his distinctive style and advancing the form of opera as well.

Donizetti and Verdi were personally acquainted with one another –  on occasion simultaneously working at the same opera house. They were admirers of each others’ work. Donizetti befriended and encouraged the young Verdi, promoting his operas. In fact, Donizetti conducted the Austrian premiere in Vienna of Verdi’s first great success, Nabucco.

Donizetti produced masterpieces of both dramatic and comic opera – such as La Favorite and  Don Pasquale – well into the 1840s (after Verdi’s first great international successes of Nabucco and Ernani), when an incapacitating disease (usually assumed to be advanced stage syphilis) destroyed the 48-year old Donizetti’s physical and mental health three years before his death in 1848.

If Donizetti’s creative life had been longer, Verdi and Donizetti may have continued to inspire one another. Perhaps Verdi might even have been encouraged to try Romantic comedy again.

Within six years after Donizetti’s breakdown, Verdi’s great trio of masterpieces Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata, which do homage to Donizetti’s dramatic style, all premiered. Donizetti’s legacy is enshrined within the operas of Verdi.

While Verdi’s operas are quintessential products of the European Romantic movement, it was Donizetti that perfected much of the musical vocabulary that made Italian opera a vehicle for Romanticism’s outward display of emotion and melodramatic sentimentality.

Verdi was to push that vocabulary even further to encompass another Romantic ideal – nationalism. Verdi’s early operas promoted the reunification of Italy, assuring that the operatic style that Donizetti did so much to create and Verdi to enhance would always be associated with the Italian nation.


For the previous program notes in this series, see: Sweet Melody: Gounod’s “Faust”, “Romeo and Juliet” and the Théâtre Lyrique, and also,

Faust Damned and Marguerite Saved: Changing Faust’s Fate in Paris, and also,

From the “Barber of Seville” to “Don Pasquale”.