It must have been wonderful to have known the genius that was Gaetano Donizetti: fun loving, wittily insightful, hardworking, and deeply talented. He was born in Bergamo, underground in a windowless basement into deepest poverty, where he ‘took flight like an owl’. He had the great fortune to be taken under the wing of the great musician Simon Mayr, the founder of the town’s free music school.
Mayr was a born teacher and believed in traditional forms of training. A successful composer and conductor, he was responsible for the first performances of Handel, Mozart and Beethoven in Italy, performances in which Donizetti took part. This solid instruction gave Donizetti the fluency to produce over 60 operas in just 25 years; operas that though composed in relatively short periods of time, are exemplars of melodic beauty, harmonic invention, and perfect musical architecture.
Donizetti’s student days were not trouble free, however. Members of the faculty found his voice inadequate, his work undependable, and his highjinks annoying. As a result, they lobbied for his expulsion. Mayr made a plea to his colleagues in the form of an end of year opera with humorous caricatures of both students and faculty; the students themselves composed the music and performed the roles. Donizetti took center stage portraying a student who has come back to school during vacation to work on an aria. The other students mock his pretentiousness, but he responds forcefully: ‘My mind is enormous, my talent speedy, and my imagination ready; as a composer I am a thunderbolt!’ Donizetti not only remained a student but was awarded a prize.
Don Pasquale is Donizetti’s masterpiece. Although he composed primarily romantic tragic operas, he never went more than a few projects before returning to comedy. He chose the opera’s subject (one cannot help finding in the character of Pasquale the pompous, critical music masters of his school) and the music flowed from him. The legend has the ‘thunderbolt’ completing the opera in eleven days, but the reality is probably a month. He reused some earlier material: Pasquale’s joyful aria imagining his progeny, the chorus’s gossiping waltz in the last act, and other sections. Though he worked quickly, recent discoveries reveal pasted over, scratched out pages of rejected sketches. Comedy is hard!
What gives me the most joy is the way Donizetti takes the entire operatic genre, which he himself had carefully codified, and turns it topsy-turvy, to use its conventions for comedy. At the same time, the ravishing orchestration tells you everything about the characters’ emotions: the impatient ‘pacing bass’, the bolero like heroic accompaniments contrasted with the gently sweeping lovesick arpeggios. Notice his iconic choices for instrumentation: he chose the tragic trumpet rather than his original choice of a harp for Ernesto’s farewell, making him a tragic hero rather than a moaning adolescent, Norina always has an elegant woodwind halo.
Donizetti’s pacing is irrevocable, pulling you along on a train of melody and harmony. There are remarkably few arias, and those always reveal character or advance the plot, never existing for mere vocal display; an astounding number of duets give Donizetti the chance of simultaneously displaying two emotions: a lyrical voice— contrasting with a cynical patter-like rap. And then we come to the Act II Finale when all four singers finally come together—waiting is well worth the glorious reward!
Don Pasquale premiered in Paris in 1843 with four of the greatest singers of the day: the soprano assoluta Giulia Grisi, the tenor Giovanni Mario, Antonio Tamburini as Malatesta and Luigi Lablache as Pasquale. Here in Omaha, we will have our own ‘Great Quartet’ and will enjoy the company of the charming Donizetti for an evening of comedy and human insight.
— Gary Thor Wedow, Conductor