From the “Barber of Seville” to “Don Pasquale”

Note from William: In celebration of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the San Diego Opera, I will be re-printing program notes that the opera company commissioned me to write. The third of these, re-printed with the kind permission of the copyright holder, the San Diego Opera, will be the program notes for their March 2012 performances of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”.


San Diego Opera audiences this season will be able to compare two of the three greatest operas in the Italian comic opera (buffa) tradition ever composed – Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (1816) and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (1843). (Donizetti’s 1832 The Elixir of Love is the third.) Barber, the most popular of Italian comic operas, is the supreme example of Rossini’s opera buffa style. Don Pasquale, which premiered in Paris in 1843, is Donizetti’s final work in the comic genre.

Significantly, Donizetti and Rossini are the only composers to have three comic operas in today’s standard repertory, Rossini for Barber, The Italian Girl in Algiers and La Cenerentola; Donizetti for Don Pasquale, Elixir and Daughter of the Regiment.

Don Pasquale, one of the last three of Donizetti’s 66 operas, displays the skills of a master of both the dramatic and comic genres. The opera is the last comic operatic masterpiece to have derived from the opera buffa tradition, in which caricatures of older men, fussing about with tongue-twisting patter songs, are outwitted and made to look foolish by the younger generation.

[Below: the Joseph Kriehuber portrait of Gaetano Donizetti in 1842, contemporaneous with the composition of “Don Pasquale”; edited image from Kriehuber’s book of lithographs.]


The opera’s theme is universal, as contemporary now as it was in the 1840s. News of a wealthy older man wishing to pursue romance with a young woman, thereby changing inheritance patterns in the process, is never far from the tabloid headlines today.  But Donizetti’s Pasquale emerges, not as a caricature, but as a sympathetically drawn human being.

Although Donizetti was only 45 at the time of the opera’s Parisian premiere, he was a wealthy widower whom many friends wanted to set up with prospective brides. One may assume he had rapport with the intrigues of his opera’s characters.

Opera Buffa for Paris’ Theatre des Italiennes

Don Pasquale is the partial remake of an older opera. In 1842 a German production of Stefano Pavesi’s Ser Marc’Antonio took place in Vienna, a few weeks after Donizetti, who held an important musical position in Vienna, left for Paris.

The Viennese preparations for reviving this old Italian opera buffa must have attracted Donizetti’s attention, because a few weeks after arriving in Paris, Donizetti decided to update the old opera to meet his commitment for a new opera to the Parisian Theatre des Italiennes.

[Below: the Théâtre-Italien or Théâtre des Italiennes  (whose building has been converted into a Parisian bank) as it existed in the mid-19th century; resized image of a mid-19th century lithograph.]


Pavesi, its composer, had an output of 70 now virtually forgotten operas. He is remembered only for the curiosity of Ser Marc’Antonio being set to the libretto by Angelo Anelli that Donizetti extensively revised for Don Pasquale.  Anelli, remembered also as the librettist for Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers, created a witty libretto for Ser Marc’Antonio, which still reads well even today.

Both operas have roughly the same main plot, but Don Pasquale eliminates several characters and sub-plots and concentrates on the inter-relationships between four (renamed) characters – Pasquale, Norina, Ernesto and Malatesta.What the four characters sing is beautifully composed. The old forms of recitative fall away in a style in which solo arias become duets and then merge into elegant and funny ensembles. Yet Pasquale pays homage to the patter song and other elements of the older opera buffa style. It was a triumph.

[Below: the original stage design for “Don Pasquale” at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris; edited image, based on an 1843 lithograph.]


One often hears that Donizetti “belongs” to a threesome of Italian opera composers – which included Rossini and Bellini. Their collective operas are often characterized as bel canto (in which the singing is all-important and the opera’s plots almost irrelevant). However, by the time of Don Pasquale’s composition, Rossini had been retired from composing opera for over 12 years, and Bellini had been dead for almost seven.

That Pasquale contains beautiful music is undeniable, but the opera’s organization is tightly constructed, the motivations of the characters understandable, the dramatic situations clear. Donizetti, the experienced Romantic dramatist, shows us how to turn the farcical comedy into a very human drama with humorous situations.

Don Pasquale: the Poignant Context of Donizetti’s Last Comedy

Tragically, by the time Donizetti created Don Pasquale he had come to realize that, though in his mid-40s, he was near the end of his life, at least of the time he could remain creatively effective. Donizetti’s physical decline is a demoralizing subject to speak about when discussing a light-hearted comedy like Don Pasquale, especially in the San Diego Opera’s humorous Wild West setting.

Unlike other composers who died at an early age, Donizetti was aware that he was afflicted with syphilis – in that century an incurable, fatal illness. As the disease moved from its dormant asymptomatic second stage to its lethal third stage, the imminence of insanity and death was a crushing prospect for any artist. It would be as if an artist today was told that he or she was suffering from an aggressive, incurable cancer and simultaneously from the rapid onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Don Pasquale is part of the great flurry of creative activity by Donizetti at the end of his life. Although Donizetti’s productivity was always prodigious, his output from the first five years from 1839 to 1844 (after he had settled in Paris, then the capital of musical innovation) is extraordinary. Before his illness robbed him of his creative powers and his sanity, one can detect an obsessive drive to create a legacy of operatic masterpieces of several distinct kinds.

In 1842 Donizetti was at the top of his game, the greatest Italian composer at that time writing operas, holding the prestigious Hofkapellmeister position in the Habsburg Emperor’s court in Vienna (the post Mozart held just over half a century before). To the despair of the native French composer Hector Berlioz, Donizetti, a foreigner, was greatly successful in Paris.

Between 1839 and 1844 Donizetti had one or more commissions with each of Paris’ four opera companies, each opera written in that theater’s style; and he wrote other works for Vienna, Milan and Naples. His works included Daughter of the Regiment for the Paris Opera-Comique (1841), perhaps the most enduring (and endearing) of French comic operas, and a five-act grand opera, Dom Sebastien, for the Paris Opera, that can be argued is the finest of its genre.

[Below: a Parisian audience attends an operatic performance at the Théâtre-Italien; resized image of a mid-19th century lithograph.]


Setting the Stage for Verdi

In the year that he created Don Pasquale, Donizetti also took on the promotion of Nabucco, the first operatic success of his brilliant colleague, Giuseppe Verdi, 16 years his junior. As we approach the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth in 2013, we should give note to Donizetti’s importance to creating the groundwork for Verdi’s successful operatic career.

In Donizetti’s time, Italian opera composers and their librettists, opera companies and singers followed established conventions (including such details as the order and form of arias and ensembles to the number of syllables in a line of text). Subject matter was often censored by local authorities always on the lookout for anti-authoritarian political meanings in opera plots.

By the 1830s, European literature and drama were being transformed by the Romantic Movement, with its emphases on emotion-driven action. Donizetti’s first great hit Anna Bolena helped forge the initial link between Romantic drama and Italian opera.

Donizetti’s string of successful dramatic operas throughout the 1830s, of which Lucia di Lammermoor is the most famous, were the major catalyst for the association of mid-19th century Italian opera with such Romantic Era poets and dramatists as Byron, Schiller, Scott and Hugo.

The Donizetti operas popularized the Romantic tenor hero (one able to sing High Cs in operatic performances with a chest tone, as we now expect all tenors to do in the popular Italian operas). Donizetti also perfected the fast-paced, intensely melodramatic situations that were later associated with Verdi’s operas but abound in such Donizetti operas of the 1830s as Maria Stuarda (Mary Queen of Scots) and Lucrezia Borgia.

The rapid pulse of Donizetti’s operas fit with the Byronic concept of masculine action, such as that of Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor. In contrast, Donizetti’s moody, melodic lines fit the image of the sentimental interactions of the action hero and the lady of his affection. Conversely, the same melodic pacing proved equally useful in portraying powerful women like Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I and Lucrezia Borgia who engaged in playing the dangerous game of dynastic warfare.

Donizetti and Verdi

Donizetti’s Romantic melodramas were a strong influence on Verdi. The two composers were collaborators in the early 1840s. Donizetti took on the musical preparations in Vienna on Verdi’s behalf and conducted the Viennese premiere of Verdi’s Nabucco.

Their collaboration went beyond one composer simply assisting the other on the one premiere. Donizetti biographer William Ashbrook has argued persuasively that Verdi’s Nabucco influenced some of the musical style of Linda di Chamounix, an opera that Donizetti wrote for Vienna.

Although Verdi had tried his hand at one comic opera, Un Giorno di Regno, in 1839, it was deemed a failure. The phenomenal successes of Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment and Don Pasquale, both of which are of a higher quality than Verdi’s youthful comedy, would have required a much different Verdi effort at comic opera for Verdi to be successful in that form. (Verdi did not try to write a comedy again until his Falstaff over half a century later.)

The success of Verdi’s Nabucco and strong professional support from Donizetti promoting Verdi’s career influenced the future of Italian opera. Verdi became Donizetti’s heir to the Romantic melodrama upon Donizetti’s demise. Verdi’s Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata are the direct descendants of Donizetti’s artistic accomplishments.

The Donizetti Revival

Donizetti’s brilliant comedies are only a portion of Donizetti’s contributions to the world of opera. His compositions, both comic and dramatic, continue to hold our interest. Without Donizetti’s accomplishments, the operas of the greatest Italian composer, Giuseppe Verdi, would have been quite different.

Among the works of his last burst of creativity were The Daughter of the Regiment and La Favorite (1840), Maria Padilla (1841), Linda di Chamounix (1842), Don Pasquale, Maria di Rohan and Dom Sebastian (1843), each one of which has received new 21st century productions.

In the past half century, a great worldwide revival of interest in Donizetti’s operas has occurred and that interest appears to be accelerating. Since January 2010, there have been 21 separate Donizetti operas being performed in different parts of the world, with 71 new productions – statistics that provide evidence of long-term commitments to these operas.

The more one sifts through the operas of Donizetti’s final years, the more one appreciates his boundless musical invention, which he employs to create true drama. Appreciating Don Pasquale is a good starting point for becoming acquainted with each of the fascinating works of Donizetti’s final years.