An introduction to Donizetti’s operas

Gaetano Donizetti was one of the three leading Italian composers of the ‘bel canto’ style of opera in the early 19th century, alongside Gioachino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini. Despite not being as widely performed perhaps as Rossini, Donizetti is the most prolific of these composers having written an incredible 70 operas during his lifetime, spanning from his first opera Il Pigmalione (1816), composed age 19, to Ne m’oubliez pas (1843).

Donizetti began his musical studies with Johann Simon Mayr, an opera composer and teacher, and was later fortunate enough to secure a position studying with Rossini’s principle teacher Padre Mattei. His professional career began in 1818 when he was commissioned to write Enrico di Borgogna for the Teatro San Luca in Venice. This opera is a story of love and power featuring strong elements of Rossini’s style: for example, it uses Rossini’s coloratura roles with florid and embellished melodies at the end of the musical line, known as fiorituri.

Enrico is a great example of Donizetti’s early style; it is dramatic and emotional, but sticks to the conventions of Italian opera and doesn’t bore us (or the singers!) with extremely long and drawn-out arias.

Donizetti took some small melodic sections from Enrico di Borgogna and recreated them in his international breakthrough work, Anna Bolena in 1830. This tragic opera was incidentally also the first of Donizetti’s operas to be performed in London in 1831. In this work he was able to achieve a more unique compositional style, and also new psychological depth, and most significantly we see the first appearance of Donizetti’s signature “mad scene”. It is in Anna’s mad scene that we can hear some brief allusions to Enrico:

We can see Donizetti’s “mad scene” developed even further just a few years later in his most famous opera, Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), known for this vocally astounding and psychologically chilling scene:

Shortly after Lucia, Donizetti composed L’assedio di Calais in 1836 (The Siege of Calais in ETO’s production). This work was his first in the style of French grand opera, in an attempt to have it accepted and produced by the prestigious Paris Opéra. L’assedio contains some of Donizetti’s most beautiful and moving music, and was very progressive for a work composed in 1836.This makes this opera perhaps one of the more individual of Donizetti’s works, as it was an opportunity for him to demonstrate his impressive skills as composer, and help to push Italian opera forward by challenging its conventionality, paving the way for the works of Verdi.

Donizetti composed for another seven years following L’assedio, during which time he produced an impressive quantity of works, including his famous Don Pasquale in 1843. However, later in 1843 Donizetti contracted syphilis, and eventually began to suffer both mental and physical deterioration. He passed away in April 1848.

Donizetti’s tale has a bleak end; however his life’s work not only created a vast expanse of music for us to enjoy, but also teaches us a wonderful message. From a young age, his father had no faith in him pursuing a career as a composer – Donizetti himself stated “…never encouraged by my poor Father, who was always telling me: it is impossible that you will compose, that you will go to Naples, that you will go to Vienna”. Indeed, he did go to Vienna, and to Naples, and Paris, and become one of the most famous Italian operatic composers – he succeeded despite doubts or difficulty, and he demonstrates that we can achieve all that we desire as long as we persevere and do not lose sight of our aspirations. GENEVIEVE ARKLE

English Touring Opera is touring new productions of Donizetti’s The Wild Man of the West Indies (Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo) and The Siege of Calais (L’assedio di Calais) in Spring 2015. For more information visit

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