A Favorite for Many Generations: The History Behind La favorite

Written by AVA Administrative Associate Stephen J. Trygar


The Academy of Vocal Arts’ production of Donizetti’s dazzling grand opera La favorite is rapidly approaching! Join us for our second opera this season with this exquisite work that will leave you wanting more. Tickets for this performance are still available on AVA’s website or by calling (215) 735-1685.

In anticipation of this production, we want to provide you with some historical context behind the opera’s accomplished and talented composer and librettists. Gaetano Donizetti’s mastery of the bel canto style was a perfect match for the dramatic writing of Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz. We hope to see you this February at our production of La favorite!


Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848),
Composer

Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti, a composer in the early Romantic Era, is one of the most celebrated composers in the present-day operatic repertoire. He was the youngest of three sons of Andrea Donizetti, and he was born in Bergamo, Italy. Although his family was very poor and had no musical background, Donizetti was taken under the wing of German composer Simon Mayr at an early age. Mayr would enroll the young Donizetti by means of a scholarship in a school he designed himself. Here, Donizetti received training in fugue and counterpoint. Later, Donizetto would be accepted into the Bologna Academy. Here, at the age of 19, he wrote his first opera, Il Pigmalione; it would never be performed in his lifetime. In 1818, Donizetti’s career began to climb upwards. His bold attempt of completing the opera Enrico di Borgogna before being commissioned to write it was a positive direction for his career, despite the lack of enthusiasm by the premiere’s audience.

In the early 1820s, Donizetti returned to Bergamo once again to reexamine the trajectory of his career. His soul searching resulted in writing works in the more popular style of his day. Gioachino Rossini had already begun making waves in this new style, and Donizetti decided to try his hand at it. At this time he had moved to Rome, and his fame began to grow. By the time he relocated to Naples in February of 1822, Donizetti’s name was already a household name and would be included in the Teatro Nuovo’s season announcement. Donizetti’s fame was mostly limited to Italy until he scored his first international success with Anna Bolena in 1830. Over the next few years, the composer would continue to churn out internationally acclaimed works, such as Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux. The banning of his opera Poliuto for it’s sacred subject was a blow to Donizetti’s ego. As a result, he moved to Paris in 1838. Over the next several years, Donizetti would move from city to city, including Paris, Milan, Vienna, and Naples. During these years, Donizetti would partake in several compositions (La fille du régiment, La favorite, and Don Pasquale) and projects (conducing the premiere of Rossini’s Stabat Mater and being appointed as kapellmeister to the royal court in Vienna). He returned to Vienna and Paris several times to fulfill several duties he had established, but by 1843 he was already exhibiting symptoms of syphilis and bipolar disorder. By 1845, he was diagnosed with cerebro-spinal syphilis and a severe mental illness that led to his institutionalization in 1846. He returned home to Bergamo in 1847, where he remained until his death on April 8, 1848.


Alphonse Royer (1803 – 1875) and Gustave Vaëz (1812 – 1862),
Librettists

Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz collaborated together several times throughout their career. Aside from Donizetti’s La favorite, the two also co-wrote the libretto for Giuseppe Verdi’s four-act grand opera Jérusalem and translated Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor for the French stage.

Aside from being a libretto writer, Alphonse Royer was an author, dramatist, and theatre manager. His career started with being a novelist and playwright, but by the 1840s, Royer was heavily involved in writing opera libretti and plays. His career took a turn when he became the possible successor of the director of the Théâtre-Français. Although he would not receive this position, he would become the director of the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe from 1853 to 1856 and the Opéra national de Paris (Paris Opéra) from 1856 to 1862. After Vaëz’s death in 1862, Royer would leave his directorship appointment to become France’s Inspecteur Général des Beaux-Arts (Inspector General for the Fine Arts). While here, he would write the six volume history of the theater and a history of the Paris Opéra. He died of pneumonia in Paris on April 11, 1875.

Jean-Nicolas-Gustave Van Nieuwen-Huysen (professionally known as Gustave Vaëz), a playwright and poet, started his career by going to the State University of Leuven to become a lawyer. He lost interest in working as a lawyer, and he began writing and publishing several plays. His first plays were staged in Brussels from 1829 to 1834, but he would leave his hometown of Brussels to work with Alphonse Royer. Aside from his collaborations with Royer, Vaëz would write the libretti for Donizetti’s Rita, ou Le mari battu, Rossini’s Otello, Rossini and Niedermeyer’s Robert Bruce, and Boisselot’s Ne touchez pas à la reine. He would die in Paris on March 12, 1862.


A Masterpiece in the Making
La favorite (1840)

Baculard d’Arnaud’s play Le comte de Comminges, based on the romance of Alfonso XI, King of Castile and his mistress Leonora, took over as the subject of a commission for the Paris Opéra when the initial work, Le Duc d’Albe, was scrapped. The Opéra’s director, Léon Pillet, demanded that an opera with a prominent role for his mistress, mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz, be written; Le Duc d’Albe was abandoned and Donizetti set out to write La favorite, borrowing heavily from his unrealized 1839 opera L’ange de Nisida (a project Donizetti also worked on with Royer and Vaëz). The opera was premiered on December 2, 1840 at the Académie Royale de Musique (now the Paris Opéra). The opera was performed each season at the Opéra up to 1894 with several revivals at the Palais Garnier. In 1897, Arturo Toscanini conducted the opera in Bergamo for the centenary of Donizetti’s birth, and the opera was continuously revived both in French and Italian (although the original is in French).

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