(This essay was written for the February 10th, 2012 Opera Company of Brooklyn performance of Gaetano Donizetti's tender comic masterpiece, L'Elisir d' Amore, at the new Di Menna Center for Classical Music in midtown Manhattan).
Many are those who are still itching to know how and why Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) achieved rock-star status in the world of nineteenth century opera. Well, there certainly are a number of enduring reasons to admire that brilliant composer from Bergamo, Italy. To begin, Donizetti was master of three types of musical composition: choral, orchestral and operatic. He created masterpieces in several Italian and French operatic genres. He wrote for the Paris Opera, coming through with flying colors in his masterpieces La fille du regiment and La Favorite. Opera lovers who need a dose or two of musical tragedy in their lives can put Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Anna Bolena on their “favs’ lists. Posterity includes Donizetti along with his Italian countrymen Gioacchino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini in that triumvirate of composers who perfected the operatic form known as bel canto, a style of singing that began in the mid- 1700s and reached its apex in the early nineteenth century in the works of these masters. But it was as a composer of comic opera, opera buffa and opera comica as they are known, that Donizetti shone. His sparkling farces L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love or The Love Potion) and Don Pasquale remain fresh, funny and vital to this day, and are among the most popular operas performed, both here and abroad.
In the early 1800s, bel canto opera was all the rage. Bel canto was to music of that era what the best Broadway musicals are today – a popular style with smash hits, and Gaetano Donizetti was its Richard Rodgers. Donizetti did not invent anything musically new, even though Beethoven was doing just that at the same time as Donizetti was composing. Donizetti did not invent a new operatic style as Wagner was soon to create. Rather, Donizetti took the musical idiom of bel canto and raised it to its apotheosis. Bel canto incorporated within its rubric several critical and difficult-to-master vocal skills: an impeccable legato throughout the range, a lightness of tone in the higher registers, an ability to dispatch the embellished vocal lines of the fioritura, a delicate and restrained vibrato, and crystalline, limpid diction. Donizetti's operatic compositions were all in this bel canto style, whether they were great tragic operas like Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia or Lucia Lammermoor, or the witty and tuneful comedies. He took comic opera, which for over a century had been the very stylized opera buffa with its stock characters right out of the commedia dell'arte playbook (viz., Pulcinella, Pierrot and company), and transformed those simple cardboard cut-out figures and that style of music into opera comica, true comic opera, where the characters were real-life people, with real-life foibles, feelings and passions. That was Donizetti's genius and our reward.
Italians were among the most prolific of all composers. Vivaldi wrote over 700 works, Monteverdi over 200 and likely many more, Rossini over 200 as well, Verdi close to 100, and Donizetti himself over 500, seventy-five of which were operas! But the question that needs to be asked is: "Is this composer capable of prolific musical production without sacrificng quality?" Fortunately for us, in the case of Donizetti, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" Donizetti's music, especially his operatic music, whether serious or comic, was uniformly of the highest quality.
|Felice Romani (1788-1865)|
Donizetti's librettist for
Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia
and L'Elisir d'Amore
As with so many of the great operatic partnerships of composer and librettist (Mozart and da Ponte, Gounod and Barbier, and Puccini and Illica immediately come to mind), Donizetti was quite fortunate in having the successful and sophisticated Felice Romani as his musical partner. Romani wrote the libretti for Bellini’s Il Pirata, I Capuleti e I Montecchi, La Sonnambula and Norma; for Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia; and for Donizetti’s first major triumph, the 1830 masterpiece Anna Bolena, and Lucrezia Borgia, which premiered in 1833 Romani also wrote a libretto that Verdi later used for his early opera, the opera comica, Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day). Now that’s pretty impressive “credits” for any librettist.
Donizetti was said to have written L’elisir d’amore in the spring of 1832 in the space of but three weeks; Romani, wrote the libretto for it in eight days! Apparently, these feats of compository prestidigitation and pyrotechnics were common at that time. Rossini wrote his brilliant opera, Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) in a little over three weeks, prompting Donizetti to yawn to Felice that " that Signor Rossini is so lazy.”!? And there is strong evidence that Donizetti composed virtually the whole final act of his opera La Favorite in but three hours !
Then, as now, there were templates in place to make writing librettos and composing operas somewhat formulaic, thus at least partly explaining their speed of composition. The story of L’Elisir did not spring fully formed from Romani’s head, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. Rather, Romani cleverly transcribed and then doctored a libretto that had been previously written by librettist with the very appropriate last name of Scribe for the 1831 opera, Le Philtre (The Love Potion), by the composer Daniel Auber.
|Donizetti's favorite soprano|
as Adina in the
1842 Naples revival of L'Elisir
Hmmmmm. So, did Romani and Donizetti plagiarize from Scribe and Auber? Not really. When one thinks about it, there are only so many story lines to draw from in opera. The usual suspects are the themes of eternal love, mixed up love, mixed up lovers, mistaken identity, infidelity, unrequited love, jealousy, love lost and then found, a mad scene for spice, and, oh yes, someone always dying, either of a dreaded disease, a gunshot wound, or both. These represent most of the core plots which have gotten mashed up and reworked in countless operas over the centuries. With L’Elisir, Donizetti and Romani were just doing what everybody else in the opera world was doing, especially at the time; to wit, dipping into this minestrone of storylines, borrowing from here, adapting from there, and presto change-o ! you have another opera, this one happening to be a comic masterpiece.
Donizetti described L’Elisir as a melodramma giocoso. In Italian, the word melodramma does not carry all of the nuanced import that the word melodrama does in our language. Melodramma simply means opera in Italian. So a melodramma giocoso is nothing more than the Italian term for a comic opera. However, the opera does begin with a little bit of serious literary history. Our heroine, the wealthy, proud, beautiful and fickle Adina, is first seen and heard as she reads, then sings and summarily dismisses, the story of Tristan and Isolde. The Tristan legend dates back over a millennium and while there are several versions of the story, in one of which Tristan is mortally wounded, all the variants, prose and poetic, have Tristan and Isolde drinking a love potion, an elixir of love, thus sealing their eternal affection for each other. Adina laughs off the story, saying that thankfully love potions don't exist anymore to ensnare and enslave women's emotions. Little does she know, as the opera unfolds.
L’Elisir premiered at the Teatro della Canobbiana in Milano on May 12, 1832, after only four rehearsals and to great acclaim, even though Donizetti had confided to Romani on opening night with the famous comment that “it bodes well that we have a German prima donna, a tenor who stammers, a buffo who has a voice like a goat, and a French basso who isn’t up to doing much.” The musicologist Charles Osborne wrote that the critic of the Gazzetta Privilegiata di Milano felt that “the style of the score is lively, and brilliant. The shading from buffo to serio takes place with surprising gradations and the emotions are handled with musical passion. The orchestration is always brilliant and appropriate to the situation. It reveals a great master at work, accompanying a vocal line now lively, now brilliant, now impassioned.” One of Donizetti’s early composition instructors, Simon Mayr, confirmed that the opera was "inspired throughout with joy and happiness."
|Dr. Dulcamara comes to town|
hawking his magical elixirs of love
in the 1968 "Wid West"
Cincinnati Opera production
Now let us not necessarily judge a hero by his first name, for Nemorino, while his name evidently doesn't mean very much at all, is a truly inspired character, a grand hero of the stature of Tristan and Romeo. Nemorino's heart-breaking second act aria, Una Furtiva Lagrima (A Single, Hidden Tear), with that plaintive introduction by the bassoon and echo by the clarinet, is so well known that it has become an emblem for all of opera (okay, okay, an emblem for all of opera along with Puccini's Nessun Dorma from Turandot). Even musical novices can sing Nemorino's aria (despite it being in the distant key of Bb minor, the relative minor of an equally distant key, Db major):
The words to Una Furtiva Lagrima are so famously beautiful, so lyrical in the original Italian, and so poignant in any language that they deserve to be memorialized here (the English translation is mine):
Una furtiva lagrima
negli occhi suoi spuntò:
Quelle festose giovani
Che più cercando io vo?
M'ama! Sì, m'ama, lo vedo.
Un solo istante i palpiti
del suo bel cor sentir!
I miei sospir, confondere
per poco a' suoi sospir!
I palpiti, i palpiti sentir,
confondere i miei coi suoi sospir...
Cielo! Si può morir!
Di più non chiedo, non chiedo
Ah, cielo! Si può! si può morir!
Di più non chiedo, non chiedo
Si può morire! Si può morir d’amor.
A single, hidden tear
began to form in her eyes:
She seemed to be envious of
those playful youths.
What more do I need to look for?
She loves me! Yes, I see that she loves me.
If only for an instant to feel the beating
Of her beautiful heart!
My sighs for a moment melded
fleetingly with hers !
To feel her heart beating, beating,
My sighs melded with hers as one...
Heaven ! Yes, I could, I could die!
I do not ask for more.
Oh, heaven ! Yes, I could! Yes, I could die!
I do not ask for more, I do not ask
Yes I could die. I could die of love.
Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)
when he recorded Una Furtiva Lagrima
in 1904, as heard in this youtube
And in our own time, Luciano Pavarotti defined the role of Nemorino as no one else could have.
Copyright 2012 Vincent de Luise MD A Musical Vision