Donizetti Had His Problems!

by Charles E. Johnson (BJR Enterprises)

POLIUTO is the 57th documented opera of Donizetti’s works. ANNA BOLENA, L’ELISIR D’AMORE, LUCREZIA BORGIA, MARIA STUARDA, LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR and ROBERTO DEVEREUX had already been composed and were popular with the public.

Donizetti’s latest opera, MARIA DI RUDENZ had just had its premiere performance at the Fenice in Venice on January 30, 1838 and the audience’s vociferous dislike and the critics’ scathing reviews literally blasted the opera off the billboards after the second performance. The management was quickly forced to resurrect an earlier Donizetti opera, PARISINA, to replace it during the scheduled season. The composer then became the butt of anonymous satirical letters and jokes poking fun at him. In this depressive mood, he turned back to work, for he had been commissioned to write a new opera for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples and at the same time had to search for a suitable libretto for an opera to be composed for the Paris Opera. For his projected San Carlo opera, he chose a story of early Christian martyrdom from a play by Pierre Corneille, entitled “Polyeucte” and had the libretto fashioned by Salvatore Cammarano. He began to tailor the opera to the talents of the great French tenor, Adolphe Nourrit for whom Cherubini had been inspired to write ALI BABA, Meyerbeer ROBERT LE DIABLE and LES HUGUENOTS, Halevy LA JUIVE, Auber LA MUETTE DE PORTICI and Rossini MOISE and GUILLAUME TELL. Although at the peak of his powers, and the reigning Star of the Opera, Nourrit was given to fits of temper and paranoia. And when a new (and younger) tenor, by the name of Gilbert-Louis Duprez was engaged by the Paris Opera, and rapidly achieved popularity by introducing high C’s sung from the chest, Monsieur Nourrit resigned the Opera in a fury, and accepted to make his Italian debut in the new opera for Teatro San Carlo.

This new opera, POLIUTO, as Donizetti entitled it, was to become a series of headaches, frustrations, lawsuits, the death of Nourrit, and was never to be staged in its original form during Donizetti’s lifetime — for as soon as the opera was completed, it was seized by the Bourbon Censorship Committee as “too sacred a work for the stage” and no amount of pleading nor re-writing could release it to be performed in Italy. This, of course, brought suit from Teatro San Carlo as he was contracted to a new opera for that season. There was no time for Donizetti to compose another opera and he was already obliged to deliver a “French” opera to Paris, so it was finally agreed that San Carlo would stage, instead, an earlier Donizetti opera, PIA DE’ TOLOMEI, without payment and Donizetti had to forfeit three hundred scudi for the cancellation of the contract.

Upon hearing this news, Nourrit succumbed to extreme neuroses involving his age (although only thirty-seven) and popularity, and committed suicide by jumping from a building, thus ending a most brilliant career and adding further to Donizetti’s griefs.

At this point, Donizetti decided to accept an offer to supervise a staging of his ROBERTO DEVEREUX in Paris, thinking this to be the change he needed to clear his head of his recent troubles and would also provide the “atmosphere” in composing his French opera. The activity of preparing for ROBERTO DEVEREUX in Paris did clear his mind but he could not forget POLIUTO and the idea came to him of rewriting this work to a French text and presenting this to the Opera as his French opera. He then secretly contracted with a M. Charles Duponchel of the Opera to compose POLIUTO in a four-act adaptation of a Scribe version of Corneille’s “Polyeucte” and Cammarano’s libretto and to be (re)titled LES MARTYRS. The following is a letter he wrote to a friend in Italy, April 8, 1839:

“At the French Grand Opera I’ll give my POLIUTO, banned at Naples because of being too sacred, lengthened to four acts instead of three as it was, and translated to adjust for the French theater by Scribe. For that reason, it comes to pass that I have had to make all the recitatives, write a new finale for Act 1, add arias, trios, and such related ballets as they use here, so that the public may not complain that the ‘tessitura’ is Italian, in which they make no mistake. French music and theatrical poetry have a cachet all their own, to which every composer must conform, whether in the recitatives or in the sung numbers. For example, a ban on crescendos, etc., etc., a ban on the usual cadenzas, joy, joy, joy; then, between one cabaletta and another they always have poetry that intensifies the action without the repetition of lines which our poets are accustomed to use. This POLIUTO, changed into LES MARTYRS, will be given within the year. Under penalty of thirty thousand francs, I am obliged to deliver the score on September 1. On January 1, 1840, I am obliged to present the finished score of the second grand opera, again in four acts, and concerning which I am bound under the same penalty.”

It is interesting to note a few things about the rewriting of the unfortunate POLIUTO. It has long been said that Donizetti was a very resourceful, practical and organized composer. He kept an orderly file of any theme or melody that occurred to him and when a cabaletta or trio or a certain kind of melody was needed during the course of composition, it was at hand; so although MARIA DI RUDENZ was rejected and forgotten by everyone else, Donizetti was wise to salvage the themes from the opera and used these to fill out the extra music required in LES MARTYRS. It is ironic, too, in the case of Adolphe Nourrit who had won his fame at the Paris Opera, then left it over jealousy of Gilbert-Louis Duprez to regain his ego by making his debut in Italy in a role written expressly for him. Now Nourrit is killed by his own hand and his rival is to premiere the new work at the Paris Opera! Also, Donizetti so wanted this new styled POLIUTO to be accepted by the French that the rescoring seems suspiciously unlike Donizetti’s own … in fact, so “French” sounding, that after the initial performance, the critic Berlioz praised its scoring!

LES MARTYRS, however, continued the agonizing frustrations left by POLIUTO. The French libretto collaborator was an erratic worker and undependable, rehearsal times were few and Donizetti found conditions at the Paris Opera deplorably inefficient and disorganized. But the practical Donizetti nevertheless used the waiting time to compose his second grand opera LE DUC d’ALBE and a comic opera for the Opera- Comique to boot, LA FILLE DU REGIMENT!

In a letter at this time he wrote a friend: “You now believe that LES MARTYRS has been given and regiven, eh? Not yet, and yesterday — for the fourth time — the dress rehearsal was scheduled and then postponed because of illnesses. Everyone, everyone except me — the singers have fallen ill, and even today one of them is still sick. Imagine that I am bursting apart and that I may die. You will know the agitation of a dress rehearsal … Four times in that state, up to one hour from beginning, and then everything suspended. Imagine how I feel now, how horribly I suffer from the nerves. Ah! if you knew how one suffers to put an opera on! You have no idea! it’s enough to tell you that they drove Rossini to distraction…”

At last, on April 10, 1840, LES MARTYRS was sung at the Opera. Two days after its premiere, Donizetti wrote to a friend: “I finally have given LES MARTYRS. To tell you how I have suffered in order to give it, to tell you how many unpleasant mishaps turned up, would be something that would take forever; it is enough that you know that the dress rehearsal was announced five times — and five times someone fell ill; that the first performance was done with Duprez hoarse and the bass with one arm in a sling! It’s not up to me to tell you how it fared. I send you an article … Do you know that they wanted the third act repeated? The Devil! an act repeated! God free us from such boredom.”

Although the opera was recieved by the critics rather coolly, the public flocked to buy tickets. This may have been more of an attraction to see its spectacular mounting than the desire to hear the music, for the critics did heap praise on the beauty and magnificence of the sets and scenery. A resume of the critiques of the period shows that the portions of LES MARTYRS which were appreciated most were the third-act sextet, the scene of Polyeucte’s baptism, Pauline’s entrance, the dungeon duet, the prayer of the Christians, and the final duet and cavatine for Pauline. In a characteristic sentence, Gautier said, however, that “the melody of the Hymn to Proserpine could have served just as well for a hymn to Venus … it totally lacked character and antique severity.” What he clearly had enjoyed most was the overture, of which he said: “The sad, severe color of the andante, the chill, gloomy song of the four bassoons, the lugubrious rolling of the muted drums, the furious, implacable motion of the string instruments, the vocal prayer of the Christians behind the curtain — all this announces the immense drama of the point at which the old world is going to find itself in the presence of the new world.”

Nonetheless, LES MARTYRS continued to enjoy sold-out houses and Donizetti considered it a success and sent a clipping to a friend in Italy which read, “The success of LES MARTYRS does not weaken. The receipts for last Monday’s performance were more than nine thousand francs. One must, furthermore, hurry to see this work, as Duprez begins his leave in June.” By return letter, Donizetti learned that the Bourbon functionary who had forbidden his POLIUTO to be performed in Italy had now also forbidden any reviews of the Paris production to be printed, apparently so as not to arouse public curiosity and resentment at having been denied hearing the opera in Italy.

Eight years after the premiere of LES MARTYRS Donizetti died — and eight months after his death, POLIUTO was premiered in its original form at Teatro San Carlo. Thereafter, the opera was staged by several opera houses in various languages and versions: as I MARTIRI at Covent Garden (LES MARTYRS having been translated into Italian); as PAOLINA E SEVERO in Rome (a revised POLIUTO); and elsewhere, a revision of LES MARTYRS was devised in three acts with an Italian libretto, and presented as PAOLINA E POLIUTO. The most important and spectacular revival, this recorded performance of opening night, La Scala, December 7, 1960, is the original POLIUTO with additions and scoring from the Paris version.