Eight lesser-known operas by Donizetti

Portrait of the composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). Found in the Collection of Museo Teatrale alla Scala. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

75 operas he wrote, the bel canto giant from Bergamo. Seventy-five! Add to that, I quote: 16 symphonies, 19 string quartets, 193 songs, 45 duets, 28 cantatas and some solo concertos, sonatas and chamber music. And how much of all that beauty do we hear these days? An average music lover gets no further than Lucia di Lamermoor, L’Elisir d’amore, Don Pasquale… Perhaps the Tudor triptych (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux). And, oh yes, La Fille du Regiment, because of all those high Cs in a row.


Set against the backdrop of a war between Florence and Siena, this story by Salvatore Cammarano, author of Maria di Rudenz and Il Trovatore, among others, about a castle lord’s wife unjustly accused of adultery, has been provided by Donizetti with the most beautiful arias and duets.
The cast, with a truly peerless Majella Cullagh as Pia and Manuela Custer as her brother Rodrigo, is, as always at Opera Rara, truly sublime (ORC 30).


The story is set in twelfth-century England. King Henry II is married to Leonora of Aquitaine, but also keeps a mistress. This mistress (Rosmonda) is locked in a tower, and the page Arturo, who is supposed to look after her, has fallen in love with her himself. A – delightful, that is – dragon of a story, but the music is divinely beautiful: lyrical passages alternate with fierce ensembles.

Renée Fleming is the sweet-voiced Rosmonda, and Nelly Miricioiu the embittered Queen Leonora. Both ladies meet in the final scene, resulting in one of the most thrilling duets. (ORC 13)


Reuse… No one used to be averse to that, including Donizetti. Especially when the premiere was imminent and the libretto was long overdue. For Parisina he borrowed some of his own music, and for convenience he ‘cut and pasted’ the (brilliant, by the way) overture he had already composed earlier for Ugo, Conte di Parigi. Despite the tight composition time (it took Donizetti no more than a few weeks), the opera was very enthusiastically received and remained regularly on the repertoire, including abroad. Rightly so. Felice Romani was a truly gifted poet, and with Parisina he delivered one of his finest librettos. It has everything in it: love, murder, sacrifice, deceit … And with Donizetti’s beautiful cantilenes added, one cannot help but sniffle and enjoy.

Parisina has been married off against her will to an old man, Azzo. For years she has been in love (reciprocally, though platonically) with Ugo, who, it later turns out, is the son of Azzo and his first wife, who had been murdered by him out of jealousy. Parisina betrays her feelings while sleeping (can you remember Cassio’s dream in Verdi’s Otello?), Ugo is killed and she dies of grief.

Carmen Giannattasio, José Bros and Dario Solari sing their roles very creditably. An essential CD for a Donizetti (and not only) collector


Les Martyrs started its life as Poliuto. The French libretto by Eugène Scribe was based on Polyeucte by Pierre Corneille from 1642 which was impregnated by the vision of its author that free will is a deciding factor in life.

Because of the choice of the topic – the life and martyrdom of Saint Polyeuctus – the censor had Poliuto banned, and opening night was cancelled. It was forbidden to show the persecution of Christians on stage in Naples at the time.

After Donizetti arrived in Paris he commissioned a new libretto from Scribe and rewrote and expanded the overture and composed several new arias for the title character.

He also changed the first act finale and added the required ballet music. He then considerably toned down the romantic entanglements and stressed the religious aspects even more.

In his big aria at the end of the second act Poliuto complains about the supposed disloyalty of his wife and speaks about the jealousy that torments him. His “Let me die in peace, I do not want anything to do with you, you have been unfaithful to me” from Polyeucte has been changed to the credo (now at the end of the third act): “I believe in God, the almighty father, creator of heaven and earth….”

Despite its early successes Les Martyrs failed to hold the stage. Instead Poliuto made it’s return, albeit on few occasions. After 1920 the opera was performed only sporadically (a remarkable fact: in 1942 Poliuto was performed on the occasion of Hitler’s visit to Mussolini, the title role sung by Benjamino Gigli).

Thanks to Callas, who rediscovered the opera in 1960,  a short revival came about. Her live recording from La Scala with Franco Corelli left me cold. The reason for that I only understood later when I heard the live recording with Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras. In an opera with vulnerability as its main theme big dramatic voices sound out of place.

In October 2016 Opera Rara recorded Les Martyrs in the studio, followed by a concert performance in November.

Joyce El-Khoury, clearly following in the footsteps of Leyla Gencer, is the perfect Pauline: dreamy, loving and fighting like a lioness (nomen est omen) for the life of her husband who turned into a Christian. A husband she does not even love. Only because she believed her former fiancé was dead she has agreed to be married off to her father’s protégé. a

In “Qu’ici ta main glacée” she sounds very vulnerable,  moving me to tears (her pianissimi!). “Dieux immortels, témoins de mes justes alarmes,” her confrontation scene with Sévère, her lover she believes to be dead (a very impressive David Kempster) is simply heartbreaking.

Joyce El-Khoury: becoming Pauline:

Michael Spyres is a very heroic Polyeucte. In “Oui, j’irai dans leurs temples” he sings a fully voiced, perfect high “E.”

The orchestra under Sir Mark Elder is on fire. The three ballet scenes halfway though the second act lighten up the mood a little, however briefly.

Much praise as well for the perfect singing of the Opera Rara Chorus (chorus master Stephen Harris).
Opera Rara ORC52


The story in short: Duke Alva, King Philip’s bloody emissary, rules Flanders with an iron hand. He has the Count of Egmond beheaded, and Hélène, Egmond’s daughter, swears revenge. Her lover Henri de Bruges turns out to be really Alva’s son, and when Hélène wants to kill the tyrant, he intervenes. Henri dead, Hélène bewildered and Alva leaving for Lisbon desperate with grief. End of opera. If the libretto seems somewhat familiar to you, you are correct. Verdi also used it inhis Les vêpres siciliennes.

Donizetti composed the opera in 1839 for Paris, but the work remained unfinished. Already a few years after the composer’s death, attempts were made to complete the opera: the Italian translation of the libretto was taken as a starting point. Here and there performances were given, but the opera never became really popular. Too bad really, because this work paved the way to Verdi and his Don Carlo.

With this recording, Opera Rara (Opera Rara ORC54) limits itself to the unfinished original, so the story ends with the arrest of Henri. The rest is left to the imagination.

With Laurent Naouri, the role of Alva is more than perfectly cast. His baritone sounds authoritarian and at times terrifying. But also imploring. You could even feel sorry for him!

Angela Meade is a very firm Hélène. Her coloratures are firm and precise but don’t expect a fainting heroine like Lucia or Elvira: this lady has guts! Which is not to say she can’t also be tender and sweet with her beloved, but that revenge is her priority is rather obvious. Listen for a moment to the love duet in the second act: “Ah! Oui, longtemps en silence” and the subsequent heroic “Noble martyr de la patrie,” in which Hélène prevails.

Michael Spyres’ Henri, despite his heroic timbre, is the softest character. Not in his singing performance, oh no, because with his role he sets a new benchmark for bel canto in French; but as a character. In the confrontation with his father, he shows his most sensitive side. The
scene, by the way, is one of the opera’s highlights. Donizetti at his best, this is something Verdi would not have been ashamed of.


What makes the recording truly irresistible is the staging. Now ‘theatre in the theatre’ is not really anything new, but Silvia Paoli knows how to put her own spin on it and the result is not only hilarious but also really good. And those gorgeous costumes…. Stunning!

What is the opera about? Love, revenge and justice, of course. Enrico’s father had been dethroned by his brother Ulrico whose son Guido now wants to keep not only the throne but also Elisa, Enrico’s lover. Are you still here? Good, because rest assured: all will be well.

But it’s not just the staging that makes the recording so incredibly worthwhile, the singers too are unquestionably good. Anna Bonitatibus sings an excellent Enrico and his opponent Guido is excellently portrayed by Levy Sekgapane. Sonia Ganassi sings a very virtuoso Elisa.
Alessandro de Marchi and the Academia Montis Regalis give a smashing performance. (Dynamic 37833)


  1. Met heel veel dank aan OperRara, die onvermoeid doorgaan met opnames uitbrengen van deze grootmeester van het belcanto. Behalve alle opera’s die Basia hier bespreekt heeft OperaRara ook nog de volgende opera’s uitgebracht: L’Ange de Nisida, Ugo Conte di Parigi, Emilia di Liverpool, Gabriella di Vergy , L’Assedio di Calais, Belisario, Caterina Cornaro, Il Diluvio universale, Dom Sébastien, Linda di Chamounix, Maria di Rudenz, Maria Padilla, Ne m’oubliez pas, Roberto Devereux, La Romanzesca en Zoraida di Granata. Misschien vergeet ik er nog een, want de hoeveelheid is werkelijk onvoorstelbaar. De grote maatschappijen hebben met steeds weer hetzelfde de Donizetti-boot gemist!

    Geliked door 1 persoon

  2. Donizetti musical output consisting of “75 operas, 16 symphonies, 19 string quartets, 193 songs, 45 duets, 28 cantatas and some solo concertos, sonatas and chamber music” is simply outstanding. And he lived 51 years only.

    Geliked door 1 persoon

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