Donizetti in context

Some historical chat about Donizetti and La favorite

Though proud to have secured a commission in 1839 from the Opéra in Paris (who wouldn’t be?), Donizetti was rushed to submit a complete score by the new director, Léon Pillet, who found himself facing a season full of holes. Other projects, including Meyerbeer’s grand opera Le Prophète and even Donizetti’s own Le Duc d’Albe were behind schedule. The fussy Meyerbeer would not complete Prophète until nearly a decade later; Donizetti never completed Le Duc. It later became the source libretto for Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes.

Gaetano Donizetti

Gaetano Donizetti

For starters, Pillet wanted a hit grand opera with strong tenor and soprano roles. Oh, and please add three juicy roles for baritone, bass, and a light soprano to set off the lower more dramatic soprano voice of the heroine, then of course a ballet in Act II (required for French grand opera) and a huge confrontation between all assembled in Act III. Pillet also knew that French audiences seemed to crave stories of religious piety versus pride versus carnal desire, base nobility and noble commoners, all in a compromising mix of intrigue. It worked for Les Huguenots, right? Could Donizetti meet the deadline?

Just as Rossini and Bellini had done in the past, actually just as most composers did back then, Donizetti borrowed from his own unfinished projects, mostly, in this case, the libretto for L’ange de Nisida. The plot and text were hastily reworked and tinkered with by three librettists, among them the famous Eugene Scribe, who had written libretti for Auber, Meyerbeer, and Rossini.

Rosina Stolz, Pillet’s mistress, was already signed to do the prima donna role of Léonor. She and he apparently so abused their power that both were forced to resign from control of the Opéra in 1847.  The famous tenor Louis Gilbert Duprez was engaged to sing Fernand. In addition to being a fine singer, Duprez achieved notoriety by singing a high C from the chest (the way it has been sung since the late 19th century) instead of with a head voice (as it had been sung for centuries before).

But Donizetti was also experiencing the first serious symptoms of his syphilis around this time, some surfacing even as far back as the days of Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). OM asked Will Crutchfield (deleted from the longer interview posted on the page Regional Opera) if there were any indications of Donizetti’s art being compromised during the creation of La favorite. He (WC) replied: “None. As far as I can tell, Donizetti was able to function musically as long as he was able to function at all.  His eventual breakdown was signaled by episodes of disorientation and bizarre behavior, but my impression is that the notes in his head and his ability to get them onto paper were the last things to go.”

From troubling but sporadic signs of illness to complete collapse, Donizetti’s deterioration was steady; his symptoms became more evident and more frequent by 1845. He was transported to his hometown of Bergamo, Italy in 1847; he died in April of 1848.

La favorite premiered at the Opéra on December 2, 1840. Though not an immediate success, the opera gained favor over time and is remembered as Donizetti’s finest grand opera. It would soon be translated and travel to other countries, certainly Italy. In 1841 in Paris a starving Richard Wagner found work transcribing highlights of the score for piano and voice, flute quartet (with violin, viola, and cello), and other combinations of instruments.

In addition to the stirring drama and music that is both melodic and emotional, the first night ballet was particularly well received. It was choreographed by Jules-Joseph Perrot, whose wife Carlotta Grisi was the prima ballerina. She was acclaimed for the central pas de deux in Favorite with, according to biographer Herbert Weinstock, Marius Petipa (who, in St. Petersburg, would later create his own signature choreography for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, to name just two). The ballet in La favorite was so successful that Adolphe Adam (who had roomed with Donizetti in Paris) created the full length Romantic ballet Giselle for her and Lucien Petipa (brother of Marius), to choreography again by Perrot with Jean Coralli. Giselle premiered in Paris in April of 1841. Carlotta was cousin of the great singer Giulia Grisi, who created such spectacular bel canto roles as Adalgisa (in Bellini’s Norma), Elvira (in Bellini’s I Puritani), and Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.

Interesting, don’t you think?