Snake Oil

Snake Oil

Posted by Jeff Counts in Program Notes, Uncategorized 06 Mar 2012

By the time Gaetano Donizetti wrote L’elisir d’amore, all of the nagging questions regarding his talent had been answered. It may be hard to imagine the reputation of Verdi’s most direct forebear in doubt for even a moment, let alone a decade, but there was a time when Donizetti’s seemingly endless stream of operas were marked (and for some, marred) by how plainly they employed the conventions of others. Though just as prolific in the early 1830s, Donizetti was by then ably in command of his own voice, one more memorably tuneful than Rossini but less florid than Bellini. Internationally and individually, he had truly arrived.

The road to the premiere of “Elixir” and Donizetti’s full maturity as a composer might well have been trod in lock-step with two of his own characters, Nemorino and Dr. Dulcamara. His real life story indeed informs both of their fictional ones but this is not to say that L’elisir d’amore is autobiographical in any sense of the word. It is not. But to the extent that any work of art reflects the experiences of its creator, this comic gem provides posterity with uncanny parallels. Like the temporary pauper Nemorino, Donizetti knew both rags and later, riches of a sort. He also had, early on, a bit of an unwitting Dulcamara in him with his quick, smart but ultimately less than effective tendency toward the “bottling” of existing ideas.

Donizetti was born in Bergamo, Italy in 1797 to parents of decidedly modest means. His father Andrea ran the town pawn shop (as caretaker, not owner) and of his six children, little beyond the basics of provincial productivity and relative comfort was expected. The fact that Gaetano’s elder brother Giuseppe became a military bandsman under Napoleon (and ultimately the Chief of Music for the Ottoman Armies) was not indicative of a household that actively promoted the study of music. Young Donizetti had to carve out that particular niche on his own and when Andrea consented to let him sing in the choir of the music school at Bergamo’s Cathedral, Gaetano caught a very fortunate break.

The founder of the academy was none other than Simon Mayr, an influential Bavarian transplant with several successful Italian-style operas to his credit. Though not a very productive member of the choir, Donizetti learned quickly in other areas and soon caught Mayr’s eye as a budding musical intellect. Much like Nemorino’s dearly departed “wealthy uncle,” Mayr bestowed opportunity upon Donizetti, not with money (though there was some) but with guidance and mentorship. The doors Mayr opened for him provided a glimpse of a world beyond the walls of Bergamo and the simple home where Donizetti would later claim he was creatively like “an owl” in a space where “no suspicion of light ever penetrated.” Where Nemorino was delivered by unexpected largesse and requited love, Donizetti found freedom in Mayr’s generosity of spirit and his own facile work ethic.

What Donizetti did with his first opportunities in opera was a bit disappointing but not altogether surprising, given his precociousness and the expectations of his environment. Even at 14, he displayed the hallmarks of a preternaturally quick study.  He could simultaneously sing recitatives while improvising at the piano and his unique mental agility allowed for immense compositional productivity right from the start. He kept a rapid working pace throughout his life. Many of Donizetti’s first 30 or so operas (yes, 30!), however, lacked the necessary spark of originality that could set him apart from his influences and contemporaries. The old-fashioned audiences at some of his early premiere locations might not have been bothered by his distillations of Mayr and Rossini but the critics often were, and they were not always charitable. One among them said that if Donizetti could only “free himself from the fetters of the Rossinian school” and the “bondage of imitation” then “better things could be expected of him.” It was tough talk, but not uncommon talk.

Donizetti did not purposefully practice to deceive like his snake oil huckster Dr. Dulcamara but he was often guilty of the same artful re-packaging of common elements in his first operas. For someone who worked so quickly and for whom the results seemed to come so easily, a certain amount of appropriation and mixing of established ingredients might be expected, if not entirely forgiven. To be fair though, Dulcamara’s love potion was nothing more than old wine in a new vessel while Donizetti’s productions, even at their most derivative, were earnest works of musical art, written with the most respectable intentions. It is to opera’s great gain that he grew out of his “imitation bondage” and eventually began to pursue his own voice, a voice that yielded by no accident some of the most celebrated comic and bel canto works in the world repertory – L’elisir d’amore, Lucrezia Borgia, Lucia de Lammermoor, La fille du régiment and Don Pasquale.

Donizetti is widely (and deservedly) revered now on his own account but also because of his well-studied influence on his countryman Verdi, an honor not lightly afforded. Entire books have been written on the melodic, rhythmic and vocally virtuosic similarities of the two men’s music and it seems true that the line of succession is stronger between them than with Bellini or Rossini. In the end, Donizetti cast off the presumed limits of his Nemorino-like pedigree and found lasting fame. He was ever haunted by judgments of predictability and a reliance on tradition but when his confidence finally caught up to his talent, he shed the unreliable charms of Dr. Dulcamara too and in the brilliant hands of Verdi, Donizetti enjoyed the ultimate validation – a legacy of his own.