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Donizetti’s Forgotten French Opera:

In Search of Le Duc d’Albe


Roger Parker

June, 2012

(The article below was written in conjunction with the recent production by Vlaamse Opera of the newly reconstructed original French version of  Le duc d'Albe, see here for comment and photographs, and describes the additions and changes that were made.  A history of the Italian version, Il duca d'Alba, can be found here)

When Gaetano Donizetti arrived in Paris in October 1838, he was already a known quantity to the opera-going public, with several Italian works in the general repertory of the city’s theatres (above all Anna Bolena and Lucia di Lammermoor). What is more, he had a sheaf of contracts and looser arrangements for future French-language operas. At the pinnacle of these commissions was an agreement to write two large-scale works for the Paris Opéra, works that Donizetti saw as marking the high-point in his career in terms of prestige. He was well aware, of course, that changes in style would be required. Quite apart from the new rhythms of sung French, he confided in a letter to his beloved teacher Simon Mayr that “French music and librettos have a cachet all of their own, to which every composer must conform”. This was true above all of works for the Opéra, which demanded more elaborate orchestration, a greater number of large choral scenes, fewer moments of vocal virtuosity, and several opportunities for elaborate scenic display. Small wonder that, while a new Italian opera could usually be put on stage in a matter of weeks, the premiere of a Parisian grand opéra—aided as it was by generous state subsidies—was an entirely different matter, with rehearsals often taking place over many months.

The first of these Opéra-contracted works to be performed was Donizetti’s own adaptation of his Italian opera Poliuto: having been banned in Naples because of its religious content, the composer transformed it into Les Martyrs, which had its premiere at the Opéra on 10 April 1840. The second, despite its fine libretto by Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier, was doomed by the kind of chaotic circumstances that often ruled at the Opéra. This ill-fated work was none other than Il Duc d’Albe: Donizetti had already written in full a good half of it and had sketched most of the vocal lines of the rest by the time of the Martyrs premiere. Unfortunately, it then became clear that the management of the Opéra preferred a different subject. Donizetti was thus obliged to abandon Le Duc in mid stream, and work on a new project, La Favorite (premiered on 2 December 1840). Some commentators have suggested that Le Duc was rejected largely because of its soprano part, which was ill-suited to the theatre’s reigning mezzo Rosine Stoltz; however, there is little evidence that this was the case, and some indication (particularly in Donizetti’s letters) that the composer himself continued to think the part especially well-adapted to her distinctive vocal personality.

Whatever caused the Opéra’s change of mind, and in spite of the fact that Donizetti continued to angle for an opportunity to complete Le Duc, the opera remained incomplete in 1846, when the composer succumbed to the terrible illness that prematurely truncated his career. After his death in 1848, the Opéra considered mounting Le Duc, but declared the score too fragmentary. Further talk of a premiere in the 1870s came to similar conclusions. It was thus not until 1881, when Donizetti’s autograph score was sold to the Milanese publisher Lucca, that more positive steps were taken. The head of the firm, Giovannina Lucca, always anxious to gain an advantage over her great rivals Ricordi, commissioned a group of experts from the Milan Conservatory (including the composer Amilcare Ponchielli) to inspect the score. They declared that, with some necessary additions, a revival was indeed possible; Matteo Salvi, a one-time pupil of Donizetti, was entrusted with co-ordinating the project, and soon completed the score, in the process adapting it to an Italian translation by Angelo Zanardini. This Italian version was first performed (as Il duca d’Alba) in Rome’s Teatro Apollo on 22 March 1882. A few revivals of the Italian Duca took place shortly after this premiere, but after that the score seems to have disappeared for a period of around seventy years. The story goes that it was then discovered on a second-hand stall by the conductor Fernando Previtali, who mounted a new production in Rome in the early 1950s, one that was recorded and is still available. Since then Il duca, always in Italian, has been revived and recorded several times: by Thomas Schippers (Spoleto, 1959), by Donato Renzetti (Florence, 1981) and by Enrique Mazzola (Montpellier, 2007).

The question raised by these recordings is of what remains of Donizetti’s opera and how it was reconstructed by Salvi and his associates. The main sources that have survived are as follows:

1. Eugène Scribe’s and Charles Duveyrier’s libretto for Le Duc d’Albe, a document also has some marginal musical annotations by Donizetti;

2. Donizetti’s sketches for the opera, housed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris;

3. Donizetti’s autograph full score, housed in the Ricordi archives in Milan;

4. the vocal score of Il duca d’Alba, published by Lucca in late 1881, with subsequent reprintings by Ricordi (who bought up their rivals in 1888); and 5) various orchestral scores that reproduce the completion undertaken by Salvi and his associates in the 1880s (unfortunately, there seems to be no trace of the original Salvi score, rediscovered by Previtali in the 1950s).

From these sources it becomes clear that Donizetti’s Le Duc d’Albe comprises three broad categories of text. About 50% of the opera (almost the whole of the first two acts) is written fully by Donizetti (both vocal lines and orchestration). About 35% of the rest has vocal lines and (usually) some instrumental cues by Donizetti. The remaining 15% is missing and in need of complete reconstruction on the basis of Scribe’s libretto. Apart from a few missing recitatives and the brief Prelude, the main entirely absent sections, are as follows:

1. The opening of Act 3. Intended as an aria for Le Duc, this is one of the most fragmentary numbers in Donizetti’s autograph: only the vocal lines of the opening sections of two lyrical passages are present. Salvi felt obliged to invent rather more freely than elsewhere, even to the extent of ignoring material in the autograph that he could have made use of.

2. The opening of Act 4. This was intended as an aria for the tenor, but is completely absent from Donizetti’s autograph (the reason being that he had placed it, with new words, in the equivalent position in La Favorite). Salvi composed a new aria, “Angelo casto e bel”. However, sketches of Donizetti’s original aria survive in the Bibiothèque nationale.

3. The Finale of Act 4. Again the autograph score is fragmentary. Scribe’s libretto imagines an impressive closing scene, with an extensive aria for Le Duc and much choral participation, both from his supporters and those rebelling against him. Salvi and his Italian librettists invented something quite different, and much simpler, bringing back material from earlier in the opera.

With such a fragmentary array of sources, it is obvious that there are numerous available routes to those who wish to present a new reconstruction of Donizetti’s unfinished Le Duc d’Albe. There can never be a “definitive” version of this score, merely different solutions to the problems inherent in the opera’s fragmentary state. The present attempt, which is the first thorough-going revision since Salvi’s reconstruction in the early 1880s, is in some ways radical and in others ways conservative. What is does, in brief, is:

1. Restore to the opera its original, French text. As mentioned above, 85% of the score’s vocal lines were written by Donizetti in French, and Scribe’s libretto is available for any missing portions.

2. Retain Salvi’s orchestration for most of the rest of the opera (exceptions are noted below), and his solutions for occasional brief passages of recitative that are missing. His orchestration was completed with some attention to “period” detail and (for the most part) with scrupulous attention to any hints that Donizetti left in his score. Given this circumstance, and the fact that Salvi was a pupil of Donizetti, there seems no good reason to replace it with a modern reconstruction. Although his solutions can sometimes be modified in small details (and have been for the purposes of the present edition), most of them are convincing and dramatically appropriate.

3. Reconstruct the opening of Act 4 (the tenor aria) on the basis of Donizetti’s sketches and his orchestration of the version in La Favorite. Although Salvi’s “Angelo casto e bel” is a magnificent and much-loved piece, there is no real doubt about what Donizetti actually wanted in this place in the score.

4. Commission entirely new solutions to the remaining missing sections of the score, namely the opening of Act 3 and the opera’s Finale. Salvi’s solutions here are in many ways inventive and sensitive; but they should not be regarded as definitive. Above all, we believe that the opera is capable of sustaining alternative interpretations, and that Giorgio Battistelli’s completion will challenge anew our perception of the work.

The story of Donizetti’s Le Duc d’Albe is, inevitably in the historical circumstances, one imbued with a sense of incompletion and loss. However, what survives of the opera constantly reminds us that this was a period in which the challenges of a new musical and cultural environment stimulated Donizetti’s always remarkable creativity to new heights. We can only imagine what he might have made of Scribe’s extraordinary final scene, for example, or how he might have negotiated other missing passages, or indeed how he might have altered his score had it reached the stage of the Opéra. But such imaginings need not be melancholy: they can, rather, inspire us to reconsider, perhaps in joyous, celebratory ways, some fundamental questions about our relationship to both monuments and fragments from our cultural past.





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