Born Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti, November 29, 1797, outside the city walls of Bergamo, in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, this well-known opera composer was the youngest of three sons (also three daughters) in a family without artistic influences. In spite of impoverished circumstances, Donizetti received a musical education from an internationally known Bavarian opera composer, Simon Mayr, who was appointed masestro di cappella at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo in 1802. Donizetti studied with Mayr until 1815, and remained devoted to him throughout his life. It was to this Basilica that Donizetti was returned for his final interment.
Mayr was also influential in later placing Donizetti with Rossini’s teacher in Bologna, the renowned Padre Stanlislao Mattei, with whom he worked for three years. Donizetti’s fortuitous beginnings led to 75 operas, 16 symphonies, 19 string quartets, 193 songs, 45 duets, 3 oratorios, 28 cantatas, and numerous instrumental concertos, sonatas, and other chamber works. It is noted often that Donizetti wrote in haste, often completing four operas per year.
As a young composer unwilling to return home to teach, Donizetti enlisted in the (Austrian) army. While stationed in Venice, he found time to write several operas. His opera Enrico, Conte di Borgogna had a successful premiere in 1818. By 1822, recognition of Donizetti’s talent in his opera Zoraide de Granata honorably exempted him from further military service.
Not knowing if his works were to be a triumph or a failure, and with an ability to compose very quickly, Donizetti preferred to not take financial risk, and accepted commissions for smaller but certain fees.
In 1828, in the midst of his most productive years, Donizetti married Virginia Vasselli, sister of a Roman physician and close friend. In early 1829, Donizetti was offered the position of Director of the Royal Theaters in Naples, a post that he held until 1838. Like Rossini, his predecessor, Donizetti was free to compose for other theatres and travel. In 1837, he was also the Director of the Naples Conservatory for one year.
Donizetti’s wife died on July 30, 1837. She was preceded in death by their three children, as well as Donizetti’s parents. These tragedies unsurprisingly are said to have affected Donizetti the remainder of his life.
By 1843, Donizetti exhibited severe symptoms of syphilis contracted in his youth. His physical and mental health deteriorated rapidly, possibly additionally caused by a bipolar disorder. He was institutionalized in Paris in 1845, and suffered a stroke that left him completely paralyzed. He was returned to Bergamo, and died in the home of a noble family on April 8, 1848.
Picturesque Bergamo today hosts an annual festival in the five-tier opera house bearing Donizetti’s name. The festival traditionally produces a number of works by Donizetti and others over a several-month period.
Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is listed as #12 in frequency of production on the British on-line Operabase website listing of opera performances, opera houses and companies, and agents. L’elisir d’amore along with Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale, and La fille du regiment are the most frequently performed Donizetti opera’s remaining in the popular repertoire today.