On this day…8 April

On 8 April 1848 Italian opera composer Gaetano Donizetti died.

Donizetti (1797-1848) was one of the great composers of bel canto opera. Among his best-known works are L’Elisir d’amore (1832), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), and Lucrezia Borgia (1833), all of which are referred to in Joyce’s works.

Born in Bergamo, Donizetti came to international attention with his opera Anna Bolena in 1830. This was followed by L’elisir d’amore, Lucia di Lammermoor and Lucrezia Borgia, which brought him success in Italy and Paris, and international renown. These operas are still widely performed today. In the mid-1840s, at the height of his success, he became insane, possibly as a result of syphilis, and was institutionalised first in an asylum in Paris and then in Bergamo, where he died in 1848.

Joyce’s works are full of references to Donizetti’s operas. During the discussion about opera at the dinner-party in the story ‘The Dead,’ Mr Browne claims that the grand old operas are never performed anymore because, he thinks, they cannot get the singers for them. The operas he mentions are Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. The latter is a bit of an odd one to bring up at a dinner-party since, in the final act, Lucrezia announces to a group of men drinking at a dinner-party that she has poisoned their wine and even prepared coffins for them.

A ‘furtive tear’ mentioned in the ‘Cyclops’ episode of Ulysses alludes to ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ (‘A furtive tear’) from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore. This aria seems to have been a favourite of Joyce’s: he sang it to Nora on a visit to his Aunt Josephine’s house during his last visit to Dublin in 1912.

In ‘Cyclops,’ the ‘Bride of Lammermoor,’ (the title of Walter Scott’s novel, on which Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor was based) is listed spuriously among the “Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity.” Earlier in Ulysses, Bloom, standing at Paddy Dignam’s graveside in Glasnevin, is put in mind of the end of Lucia di Lammermoor, when Edgardo kills himself in the graveyard after hearing of Lucia’s death: “Last act of Lucia. Shall I nevermore behold thee? Bam! He expires. Gone at last.”

Donizetti’s La Figlia del Reggimento (The Daughter of the Regiment) is alluded to in the ‘Sirens’ episode, with reference to Molly Bloom who, as Major Tweedy’s daughter, is effectively a ‘daughter of the regiment.’ Apparently, La Figlia del Reggimento was advertised in the Dublin newspapers on 16 June 1904 to be given the following night by the Elster-Grimes Opera Company at the Queen’s Royal Theatre.

In Finnegans Wake there are references to Donizetti and to eleven of his operas, full details of which can be found in Hodgart & Bauerle.


Sources & Further Reading:

Bowen, Zack: Musical Allusions in the Works of James Joyce, Albany: State University of New York Press, & Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1975.

Hodgart, Matthew JC, & Ruth Bauerle: Joyce’s Grand Operoar – Opera in Finnegans Wake, Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.