When it comes to observing human suffering acted out on the operatic stage, I find myself, time and gain, making the same kind of inference about the musical mind behind Donizetti's opere serie. Whether it is cold-blooded cruelty, shocking violence, or gruesome death, the emotional commentary on such events supplied by Donizetti's music makes me feel as if I am face to face (or, perhaps, ear to ear) with a textbook case of a psychopath. How else am I to feel when Donizetti responds to human suffering with a gently swaying major key cantabile (a dreamy smile with eyelids half closed and lips slightly parted), in which a woodwind instrument traces an arched melodic line against the gracefully inflected figurations in the strings (fingers caressing the armrests of a chair), and which is often followed by a bouncy, euphoric cabaletta (rapid heavy breathing).
Of course, some Donizetti characters suffer in the state of delirium, in which case the lovely music may be taken to reflect the character's psychological withdrawal from the grimness of his or her circumstances. But there are also plenty of Donizetti characters who suffer and die to the same kind of music without ever losing their grip on reality. A typical example is Edgardo's serene, major key "suicide aria" Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali at the end of Lucia di Lammermoor. The music's emotional profile is completely at odds with the mindset of a deeply traumatized man who is convinced that his life is no longer worth living, not to mention the fact that he finishes this lovely aria with the dagger already deep in his chest.
Because Donizetti was known to be an unusually kind and generous person, I couldn't help but wonder about the reasons behind his psychopathic "compositional behavior". My guess it that at the time when Donizetti was coming up as an operatic composer, killing an innocent character on stage was still considered a serious affront to the social and aesthetic standards of decency and propriety. In dealing with this kind of expectations (not to mention the vigilant censors), the options available to composers of serious operas were rather limited. One was to devise ridiculously unmotivated happy conclusions to operas which, until the final scene, unfold as if spiraling toward a catastrophe. (Donizetti had done just that in some of his early operas.) Another option - seemingly too speculative for musicologists to bother with, but one which I think Donizetti might have pursued in his most famous serious operas - was to retain the brutal and gory elements of the story while using music as a means for keeping the audience at a considerable emotional distance from the characters on stage. With violence and death being musically aestheticized to the point where they only squeeze the viewer's heart instead of piercing it, Donizetti might have succeeded in keeping the public comfortable, but at the cost of presenting himself as a compositional psychopath whose music is marked by a strongly felt lack of empathy for the suffering of his characters. That Donizetti's music also radiates a great deal of charm only adds to its pathological feel because excessive charm is one characteristic shared by many psychopaths.
Although decidedly not scholarly, this way of looking at Donizetti's music offered me something that the usual formalist perspectives on music history never could: a plausible explanation of why the operatic stock of this once immensely popular composer went into a century-long decline with the arrival of Verdi's so-called mature operas. So what if Verdi used a larger orchestra, if his vocal lines were more direct (with more functional than virtuosic ornamentation), and if his arias, duets, and finales were better integrated into the overall musical momentum (significantly diminishing their role as "units" of musical construction in favor of entire scenes)? The average opera-goer probably cares little (if at all) about such analytic matters. What he does care about is the intensity of a musico-dramatic experience; and Verdi's formal innovations would be of no significance if they were not in the service of creating music of startlingly greater emotional authenticity. After all, a Verdi tragic character like Rigoletto is made to suffer a lot, but surely not more than Donizetti's tragic characters who get beheaded by their siblings or poisoned by their mothers. Yet it feels as if Rigoletto's suffering is vastly greater, and it does so only because when Rigoletto suffers, the music suffers with him. The difference between, say, Donizetti's Lucia chirping to the glass harmonica obbligato in her "mad scene" and Verdi's Rigoletto gasping and growling in horror after hearing the Duke's distant reprise of La donna è mobile is the difference between music used to suppress our normal emotional responses and music used to amplify them.
If Verdi's music is psychologically much healthier than Donizetti's, it is still sufficiently manipulative to keep the public entertained by all the gore and violence taking place on stage. Perhaps some kind of delicately controlled musical balance of emotional authenticity and psychopathic detachment is absolutely necessary for an operatic tragedy to achieve great and enduring popularity with the public. If so, then Verdi seems to have mastered this balance better than most operatic composers: the Top 50 chart of operas performed all over the world in the last five seasons lists ten(!) Verdi tragedies, five of which are in the top twenty (including the number one spot). By contrast, this chart contains none of the critically acclaimed operatic tragedies whose music can be said to have a clean (or almost clean) bill of psychological health: Elektra, Erwartung, Wozzeck, and Die Soldaten, to mention a few.
The received opinion on the relatively marginal status of these 20th century masterpieces is that the public is allergic to music it finds incomprehensible because of constant unresolved dissonances and absence of easily recognizable thematically and harmonically guided narratives. But what if the public comprehends this kind of music all too well and simply resents the discomfort caused by the music's complete empathy with fear, disorientation, panic, anguish, and pain experienced by the characters on stage?
What if the psychopathology in the music of popular operatic tragedies is there only to satisfy our perverse attraction to observing human suffering from a mixture of psychologically normal and psychopathic points of view?
What if composers of operatic tragedies are ultimately applied psychologists who design stimuli of a special kind (temporally organized sounds) to give us the desired experience?
In that case I would probably owe Donizetti an apology for calling him a "compositional psychopath". He might have simply erred, as an applied psychologist, by adding too much psychopathology to the mix of musical stimuli, just as the 20th century composers of operatic tragedies erred by adding too little or none at all.
1. I do not include Bellini in this discussion because his operas - with their combination of saccharine melodies, amateurish orchestration (if arpeggiated bass accompaniments deserve to be called "orchestration" at all), and constipated dramaturgy - bore me to tears. (And so do Chopin nocturnes, for that matter, which all sound like piano reductions of Bellini arias.) As for Rossini, I am in awe of his many comedies, but much of the music in his serious operas strikes me as contrived, plodding, and lifeless; and it invariably makes me think that Rossini should have taken to heart Beethoven's insightful advice to stick to opera buffa so as not to do "violence to his nature".
None of this is to say that Donizetti's serious operas are perfect (among the dozen or so that I know only one - Lucrezia Borgia - comes close to perfection), but only that they are far more interesting to me musically and dramatically than those penned by Bellini and Rossini. The loss may be mine, but since I'm not a masochist, I don't write about things I don't find sufficiently interesting.
2. I don't think that the bel canto style's commitment to writing gracefully and virtuosically for the voice made it impossible for Donizetti to give emotionally more appropriate musical responses to suffering. After all, Mozart had already shown decades earlier that coloratura arias - e.g., the Queen of the Night's aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen - can express much darker emotions without sacrificing vocal grace or technical brilliance. Also, some of Donzetti's orchestral preludes and interludes vouch for his ability to write music that is emotionally dark and brooding.
3. Of course, Wagner had a lot to do with displacing the operatic works of pre-Verdi Italian composers. But, in the present context, Wagner's fairytale operas - populated by gods, valkyries, and giants - are irrelevant because their music does not comment on the suffering of human characters. Even Tristan and Isolde are not, strictly speaking, human characters because humans don't get to drink magic potions.
4. In any case, the originality of Verdi's treatment of formal elements in his operas is often overstated. Even his mature operas show significant debts to Donizetti, sometimes to the point of aping the older composer's devices. A well-known example is the opening of Verdi's Rigoletto, in which the dark and brooding orchestral prelude suddenly dissolves into the festive din of offstage music, and which is an almost plagiaristic appropriation of the opening of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. Many additional examples of Verdi's debt to Donizetti are discussed in Winton Dean's "Donizetti's serious operas", Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 100(1), 1973, pp.123 - 141.