Imagine composing over 20 operas – some of them highly successful at the time - before finding your own individual way of doing things. That’s what happened to the incredibly prolific Donizetti.
His father, a weaver and later a pawnbroker, would not countenance a musical career for his son at first but eventually reluctantly allowed him to go to the Bergamo School of Music. Here Donizetti devoured the scores of his idol Rossini (who was only five years older), determined to be another opera composer in the same mould. So his first opera, Enrico di Borgogna (1818) and the next 22 were written by the hand of Donizetti but with the voice of Rossini. He couldn’t have known that Rossini would stop writing operas in 1829 but the strange fact is that, as soon as Rossini did ‘retire’ (at 37), Donizetti grabbed the mantle, as it were, and started writing in his own distinctive style.
His finest operas were produced after 1830 – Anna Bolena, L’elisir d’amore, Maria Stuarda, Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale – some sentimental and tragic, some witty and subtle, 70 in all. As in the Rossini-influenced days, he could turn out as many as three or four a year and was said to have sketched and written the last act of La favorita in a few hours. Not all have stood the test of time – one wonders what such quixotic titles as Alfredo il grande, Alina, regina di Golconda and Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth contain. At any rate, Donizetti dashed all over Europe in the 1830s and ’40s producing, supervising and composing his operas, acclaimed in Vienna and Paris just as much as he was in his native Italy.
With the appearance of Don Pasquale in 1843, Donizetti reached the height of his creative powers, for then Fate intervened. He had never got over the death in 1837 of his adored wife and began suffering bouts of fever and headaches, accompanied by intense depression and hallucinations. He continued to work through 1844 but in 1845 had a paralytic stroke and lapsed into insanity in the final stages of syphilis.