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Gaetano Donizetti (1797 - 1848)
and Vocal Brinkmanship

 


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GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 - 1848) AND VOCAL BRINKMANSHIP

-- Geoffrey Riggs

 

The many contrasts in vocal style throughout the 1700s parallel the contrasts in varied musical and vocal genres of that time. But such contrasts get more and more blurred by the early 1800s. These vocal styles are frequently juxtaposed within one and the same work.

By a happy accident, the culmination of this heady mixture of vocal contrasts typical of this period coincides with the culmination of one composer's most distinctive style, Donizetti's. His Roberto Devereux and Poliuto, to librettos by Salvatore Cammarano, crown his creative work at Naples (the 1830s), an opera center especially distinguished for its tradition of vocal derring-do, where, inspired by superstars like Giuseppina Ronzi-De Begnis, for whom he wrote the part of Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux, and Adolf Nourrit, for whom he wrote the title role in the original Poliuto intended for Naples, Donizetti pushes the vocal envelope almost as far as it can go. He expects his interpreters to combine an elegance of musical manners reminiscent of Gluck or Mozart with a newfangled vocal strength, characteristically vehement and energetic, that recalls Weber or Beethoven. With all this, the additional precision of an intricate, florid vocal line requires the performer to combine the sheer agility of a Mozartean with a brute vocal strength.

Other composers, like Verdi or Wagner, may well trump the vehemence and energy in Donizetti; a Gounod, a Delibes or a Thomas, later in the century, may sometimes match Donizetti's vocal agility; but in the fusion of these and other conflicting demands, Donizetti remains especially challenging.

Later composers of arguably greater genius may use deliberately contrasting vocal styles in a more dazzling way (syntheses like the gallery of unforgettable character portraits in Wagner's Die Meistersinger, where each character has its distinct vocal style), but only Donizetti tests the outer limits of such contrasts within one and the same role, and in not just one work or for one singer. Cherubini, Rossini and Bellini are trailblazers in fashioning an occasional isolated such role under specific circumstances, and Rossini had even anticipated and exceeded the Poliuto requirements in two tenor roles designed for the superhuman Andrea Nozzari (Agorante in Ricciardo e Zoroaide and Antenore in Zelmira, both of these not coincidentally premiered at Naples as well), but it took Donizetti to test more habitually the potential of such brinkmanship in both tenor and soprano writing.

We hear that most vividly in the second Act of Roberto Devereux, in the vocal writing for Elisabetta, and in Act II, Scene 2 of the original Poliuto, in the tenor writing given the title role.

There is also that most mercurial and heroic baritone role of them all: Chevreuse in Donizetti's Maria di Rohan. Here is one role that, IMO, requires every bit as much power, as much abundance of varied expression, as much sheer range, as does Rigoletto, as does Nabucco, as does the elder of the two Foscari, as does the Verdi Macbeth -- you name it. Nothing, IMO, separates the vocal and interpretive difficulties of this towering Donizetti role from the baritone roles in Verdi (save that Chevreuse may require even more flexibility!).

Incidentally, the baritone Giorgio Ronconi, who also created the Verdi Nabucco in 1842, created this Donizetti role in 1843.

If the Devereux Elisabetta and the original Poliuto constitute Donizetti landmarks for the prima donna and the primo uomo (or "divo";-), then Chevreuse is just as much at a Donizetti crossroads for the baritone. The vocal envelope is tested just as severely.

Is it a coincidence that this work too is set to a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano? He and Donizetti really appear to have had a true affinity.

If I had to pick the one scene that seems to pull together the most disparate elements in Chevreuse's role, it would be his entire last scene in the third act. This closing sequence is the third pillar of a mighty threesome that also encompasses the second-act finales of Roberto Devereux and Poliuto.

It was only many years after I first responded to Donizetti's searing emotional effects, strictly through the vocal line, that I learned that Donizetti himself was a manic depressive, thus as storm-tossed psychologically as any of his most volatile characters. He does not just adopt mere formulas related to characters in extremis. He virtually inhabits them! The highly emotional and vocally intricate results are every casting director's nightmare. I don't honestly believe I will ever hear every vocal nook and cranny of a Devereux Elisabetta or a Poliuto delivered with the utmost naturalness. It may not be humanly possible. And in the sheer effort Donizetti himself pours into the vocal line (mirrored in the uniquely staggering effort required of his performers), other elements can remain sketchy, very much unlike the craftsmanship of a Mozart or a Beethoven. Perhaps, emotional energy like Donizetti's can only be allocated to one element at a time. If so, the trade-off in Donizetti is sui generis, IMO, and entirely worthwhile.

 

--Geoffrey Riggs

 

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