Small picture of Donizetti



The “hache sanglante” of the Duke of Alba

Part 1 - A history of the opera

Alexander Weatherson

The first part of an article that appeared in Newsletter 102, October 2007, pp. 12-15.
The second part, an outline of the opera structure, can be found here and the performance history since 1950 here.


Poised for a big splash on arrival in Paris from Naples , begun in 1838, Le Duc d’Albe was the very first of Donizetti’s four grands opéras but the very last to see the light of day. Put aside, half-composed, it fell by the wayside. He had come intent on conquest - to take the city by storm - but fell prey to its most powerful inhabitant, the diva of the day.

The work of that insuperable duo Scribe and Duveyrier and with the composer at the very apex of his fame, the argument of Le Duc d'Albe may well have been the most persuasive he was ever to set to music, a perfect triad, the three actors at its heart sharing an equilibrium of passions, fears and despair, all are victim of the same nemesis. With real history as its excuse, as credible and compassionate a plot as any and with no loose ends, it is no wonder that it survived its Donizettian check and reappeared - a curious bonus, but diluted and disclaimed - on an as yet unguessable Verdian horizon as Les Vèpres siciliennes.

The initial contract between the composer and the Paris Opéra was signed as early as 16 August 1838 and intermittently during the following eighteen months he was working on the score. Being the maestro he was, however, caricatured as writing two operas at the same time, one with each hand, he was also engaged in adapting for the Paris stage at least three more. A change of management at the Académie royale de Musique was the undoing of Le Duc d’Albe, a new and impulsive director, Léon Pillet, arrived to take over and with him his mistress, the redoubtable mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz, primadonna assoluta as soon she made clear. The lady had a problem, Donizetti was writing Le Duc d’Albe for a lyric soprano, there was one available, her detested rival Julie Dorus-Gras, so the opera was doomed - no one was going to open her reign with a brand-new opera for a rival, so she got La Favorite in its place, not quite new, but one of the biggest successes of the Paris stage where it remained a favorite to the end of the century (although she herself was nothing of the kind), and then later, the starring role of Zayda in Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal of 1843. (While La Dorus-Gras had to be content with Pauline in Les Martyrs (an adaptation), too sacred a role, maybe, for her sacred-monster of an antagonist). The incomplete score of Le Duc d’Albe stayed under the composer’s desk until his death.

In 1848 the Opéra made a determined attempt to retrieve and perform this important, expensive and abortive commission, but dismayed by the state of the manuscript gave up the idea. Others, later, had the same idea. In 1875 the city of Bergamo appointed a commission to examine the music, it reported that though the first act was orchestrally complete and a second act almost complete, the third and fourth acts were merely skeletal with a vocal line to the end but only an indication of the rest. Even more disturbingly, as they commented wryly, the tenor aria ‘Ange des cieux’ had been removed to become ‘Ange si pur’ in La Favorite. Other sections had clearly been recycled. Le Duc d’Albe went back into its box.

In 1881 Donizetti’s heirs offered the manuscript to the famous music publishers, the Casa Ricordi, but Ricordi with Victorian virtuousness rejected the offer on the grounds that completion by other hands “would damage the name and art of the famous composer”. Such a statement was nothing but red-rag-to-a-bull to the immediate competitor of the Casa Ricordi, and the resurrection of Le Duc d’Albe begins with a second formidable woman, this time the imposing widow of the rival milanese publisher Francesco Lucca, Giovannina Strazza (1810-1894), an outsize protagonist both mentally and physically who would much exceed La Stoltz in changing the course of Italian opera of her day. She purchased the manuscript forthwith. With strategic cunning she too engaged a commission, at least she asked the Milan Conservatory to do so, to select a trio of distinguished composers to look-at the manuscript, a suitably non-Verdian trio (Ricordi being synonimous with Verdi), the Conservatory named Antonio Bazzini, Cesare Dominiceti and Amilcare Ponchielli. This unimpeachable caucus duly reported that the lyrical integrity of the opera was intact, that the number of completed items in the score, together with those that could be made performable with small additions, was sufficiently in evidence that if a “sure, expert hand” could be found then “Le Duc d’Albe could be offered to the public as an undoubted work of Donizetti”

The time-schedule for the realisation of this music, the speed with which it emerged as Il duca d’Alba suggests that the flair of Signora Lucca went far beyond this. That shrewdly she had already recruited a fellow Bergamasc former-pupil of Donizetti, the highly competent Matteo Salvi (1816-1887) to undertake the necessary research and tailoring of the score. That Salvi masterminded Il duca d’Alba under the critical eye of Bazzini, Dominiceti and Ponchielli we know well, no “damage” to “the name and art of the famous composer” could even be contemplated.

The Scribe-Duveyrier livret was handed over to Angelo Zanardini for translation and refashioning as an Italian opera in four acts, losing as little as possible of its original quality. This was not easy, Italian versions of French grand opéras did not have a good reputation, Guglielmo Tell, La favorita, I martiri, Gli ugonotti and Il profeta, for example, all are more-or-less painful confections with real losses both in meaning and content and 1838 was a critical step in Donizetti’s maturity, with one foot still in Italy and another in France. Le Duc d’Albe was a carte-de-visite on the threshold of his major musical re-evaluation. Such Italian transcriptions invariably ducked French candour and specificity preferring that kind of evasive librettospeak originally adopted to defeat the impositions of a monstrous regiment of official censors.

And the music? Fear that after forty years the music might sound dated certainly blunted an absolutely literal re-use of those portions of Le Duc d’Albe that had been inherited relatively intact from the composer. As a result, in 1882, when Il duca d’Alba finally won the stage, all the music had been tampered-with to some extent; Salvi (and Bazzini, Dominiceti and Ponchielli) found themselves balancing on a tightrope between Donizetti’s tentative gallicisms and the triumphalist instincts of the Signora Lucca, orchestration, dynamics, sequence and tempi all have been manipulated and enhanced in the completed score for which Salvi took the blame; the colour of the music betrays its later nineteenth-century origin - a factor that did not jarr at the time of emergence (but has jarred since). This is not to say that Salvi and his overseeers failed to respect Donizetti’s score, it is obvious that they bent over backwards to live-up to the challenge of completing this opera and many of their adaptations and additions are not only beautiful but inspired.

The moving Preludio for instance. Who wrote it? Or at least, who compiled it? Which of the above maestri? There is no sign of this heartrending opening in the autograph pages to be found today, Donizetti left merely a list of motives he could use. The autograph manuscript (irony of ironies the archive of the Signora Lucca was acquired by the Casa Ricordi in 1888 a year or two before her death!) begins with the chorus of Spanish soldiers ‘Espagne, Espagne, mon pays’. Nor can this prelude be unearthed in the Bibliothèque Nationale where a host of surviving fragments and sketches include this Choeur d’Introduction above but nothing earlier. Had the manuscript score prepared by Salvi remained accessible we might have been able to answer questions like this but this historic document has never been traced. Thus, the question “Who wrote what?” has been on the lips of every researcher ever since. This prelude, however, is a key to the emotional content of all the rest, evoking in succession both the sinister shade of the Spanish Governor of the Low Countries (by opening with the fearful footfall of his armed guard) followed by the sweet paternal anguish of Hélène d’Egmont (who has been re-named Amelia d.Egmont in Il duca d’Alba) by launching the theme we hear when she stands on the spot where her father was decapitated (on the orders of the Duke). The parameters of the plot are made clear immediately: the opera is about fatherhood: the irreconcilable Hélène/Amelia intends to revenge herself for the death of her father; the terrible Governor is prepared to spare her if his long-lost son Henri/Marcello will acknowledge his paternity; the son dies defending him from the woman he loves. Did Donizetti intend a leitmotif? Perhaps he did but the fragmentary state of the music leaves it an open question and it was the age of Ponchielli that invested in leitmotifs.

The Salvi Il duca d’Alba proved to be an inordinately long score, indulging in every kind of audience-rousing device, deafening choruses, overwhelming cabalette replete with reprise after reprise to such an extent that its future as a viable repertory item was compromised even from the start.. But its first appearance was truly an extended triumph for Giovannina Lucca: with a prima at the Teatro Apollo in Rome on 12 March 1882, before an overflowing house, the seat prices doubled and with the Queen of Italy suitably enthroned in the centre of the first row of boxes, the cast included Abigaille Bruschi-Chiatti as Amelia d’Egmont; with the sensational Spanish tenor Julian Gayarré as Marcello di Bruges; Leone Giraldoni as the Duke of Alba and the smaller fry Daniele and Sandoval sung by Alessandro Silvestri and Igalmer Frey. Everything was received with rapture. Revivals followed in quick succession - at Naples, Bergamo, Turin, and abroad at Barcelona and Malta and then it vanished, vanished completely, there was no further sign whatsoever of Il duca d’Alba. No one seems even to have remembered its existence, until, that is, Fernando Previtali discovered the battered full-score used by the conductor at that momentous prima on a market stall in Rome in the 1950’s.


The opera begs several questions. Was its abandonment wholly without regret on the part of Donizetti? Both he and Verdi were failed fathers, maybe Le Duc d’Albe was simply too painful to continue? Its theme of fatherhood too near the bone for the composer left without wife, three dead sons, rootless, and pessimistic about his future? But Donizetti made something of a corner in redemption: in the same way that Lucrezia Borgia is redeemed by love for her incestuous (and hostile) son Gennaro, the Duke of Alba is redeemed by love for his illegitimate (and hostile) son Henri/Marcello. Maybe he hoped for redemption himself with this theme? The demise of his unfortunate offspring purged by the hope of the opera’s own triumphant musical outcome?




Page initially published in  2007