Gaetano Donizetti: Gabriella di Vergy (1838)

Opera in tre atti. Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes.

This opera never really had a chance. Written originally in 1826, numbers were later refitted into multiple other operas, including Il Paria and Anna Bolena. It was rewritten in 1838 and music from Maria di Rudenz and Rosmonda d Inghilterra was re-purposed   in order to lengthen the score. It would finally be performed in 1869 (in a compilation form including music from other cantatas and forgotten operas written by Donizetti, not the score presented here), but it was only in 1978 that the original 1838 score was discovered in London and the opera performed as written and recorded by Opera Rara.

SETTING: Burgundy, Middle Ages. Gabriella (soprano) has married Fayel (baritone) under the belief that her lover Raoul (tenor) has died in the Crusade. It turns out that Raoul is very much alive and King Philippe Auguste (bass) is determined to marry him off to Almeide (mezzo-soprano) the sister of Fayel. The opera ends with Fayel killing Raoul, cutting out his heart, and presenting it (still warm) in a tiny casket to Gabriella, who then curses her husband and dies.


ACT 1: (58 minutes)

Scene 1: An illuminated oratory in the castle of Fayel.

4: Giovin, leggiadra, amabile The brief prelude is shear gothic horror, followed by a placid feminine chorus (with interjections from Almeide) which gets interrupted by Fayel in minimally accompanied recitatives, but his cavatina * is really very good with a rich string setting, followed by an energetic cabaletta.

14, 20: Dell nostra anime/ Gabriella comes on for a other placid cavatina *, the cabaletta (which includes a harp, and gets interrupted in the middle by a chorus of ladies-in-waiting) is an improvement **.

25: In notte oscurra e tacita Raoul and Gabriella are unfortunately reunited in a depressing recitative followed by an oddly jovial duet with a sunny tune **. He accuses her of perfidy because of her marriage to Fayel (which she explains was the result of pressure from her father following reports of his, Raoul, having fallen in battle), but the music indicates little of the angst of the scene.

32: Voi, che al fianco A surprising soldiers chorus brings on King Philippe Auguste *** (the chorus and orchestra get the best part of the music to the end of the scene)

36: Oh! Miei fidi, il vostro accento Philippe Auguste addresses everyone in a very noble and kingly way ***, more chorusing (most effective), more kingly addresses, and finally Fayel comes in with Gabriella and Almeide. Raoul pops out from behind the tapestries and this sets up the whole situation for Philippe Auguste to demand that Raoul marry Almeide, with Fayel divided on the issue of becoming brother-in-law to his rival. Great choral-orchestral work to the end of the scene.

Scene 2: The Apartments of Gabriella.

50: Chio lieta ritorni? The entire scene consists of an interview between Fayel and Gabriella in her chambers, surprisingly a rather beautiful sequence musically *** even if they are both begging the other for mercy. The stretta is furious but, again, oddly placid.

ACT 2: (26 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in the castle.

0: Il liquor fervido Another furious male chorus **, this time a drinking song.

5, 9: Io l’amai nell’etade primiera/Questo raggio lusinghiero A beautiful cavatina for Raoul as he contemplates the beauty of Gabriella ***. He is interrupted (unfortunately) by Armando (a friend of Fayel) who presents an invitation apparently from Gabriella for Raoul to visit her in her apartments in private (a trap? he doesn’t seem to care!) and the cabaletta is about as lovely as the cavatina ***.

Scene 2: Same as act 1 scene 2.

15: Un solo istante ancor! Almeide is preparing for the wedding with her sister-in-law as Armando tells them that Raoul is coming. When he arrives he is set straight by Gabriella: it was Almeide who called for him, not her. However, Raoul really does not care and starts to make love to Gabriella ***. They are found by Fayel, and then the King himself arrives because of all of the commotion from Fayel shouting accusations of betrayal at Gabriella.

18: No! Rea non sono The concertante finale *** is fully up to its task. All of the emotions are here: Fayel: Rage, Gabriella and Raoul: Terror, Almeide: Betrayal, Philippe Auguste: Anger, the chorus: confusion. Raoul is arrested. Curtain.

ACT 3: (37 minutes)

Scene 1: Same as Act 2 Scene 1.

0: A striking prelude *** as Raoul is dragged down to the castle dungeon by Fayel and Philippe Auguste. The two interrogate Raoul; eventually the King leaves.

5: Io tremar? The furious nine-minute duet in which Fayel and Raoul challenge each other to a duel: a furious piece of musical mood painting: terrifying, militant, brilliant ***!

Scene 2: A subterranean chamber under the castle.

16: Intrepidi entrambi After an agitated recitative between Almeide and Armando as they wait to see who won the duel and who is dead, the courtiers come on for another choral go **.

20: Quale orror mi circonda! The gran finale *** starts off with a strong French horn as Gabriella descends, waiting stark terrified that either her husband or her lover is dead (or both for that matter).

26: L‘amai…si…Un velen recatemi Fayel confronts Gabriella with the casket ***, and reveals the heart of Raoul inside! Gabriella is horrified.

30: Ah! Vanne…togliti del guardo mio She has nothing left but to curse her husband in a cabaletta con coro ***, and die. Curtain.


This is what happens when a composer, without any commission or thought of economic gain (there was the slight possibility of the opera being performed, although casting and censorship issues aborted the attempt), really loves the subject matter of his opera and writes for the sheer pleasure of it all! The score dates to 1838, when Donizetti was at his zenith of creative abilities, and it shows! Gabriella di Vergy is very nearly a masterwork of forgotten operatic literature with all of the characteristics of top drawer tragic Donizetti (Lucia, Devereux, Calais, Maria di Rudenz, Poliuto, Maria Stuarda). All of the weaknesses are gone: the drab choruses, the pallid, workmanlike orchestration, the re-use of second rate tunes, the unnecessary minor role casting that plague most other Donizetti operas like a hangnail. Here there are six soloists, and each serves an obvious purpose to the plot. The orchestration is spot on and clear in both intensity and beauty of effect. The choruses are magnificently one of the best parts of the score, and if anything was reused here, it was the best product of the composer! The tenor music is outstanding, truly Donizetti loved the role of Raoul! and the romantic ardour is present to a highly unusual extent, but rounding this out both Gabriella and Fayel are just as strongly, if not more strongly drawn. Philippe Auguste is an excellent character bass part. If only this opera had been performed in 1838, today we would know it as well as at least Roberto Devereux! If I could fault the opera at all it would be for certain moments when the music should be tragic and it is instead sunny and bright. As with Lucia, what makes this a superior work is the lack of ennui, as the action is taut and the music accompanying it just as immediate. The drama benefits from its brevity (this is shorter than Lucia by ten minutes!). Although it lacks the immediately catchy tunes of Lucia, the score can be easily compared with the first two acts of Calais or almost all of Roberto Devereux. The plot is direct and to the point, and the score reflects this. Certainly the heart in the casket is no more shocking than Lucy and her blood stained bridal gown? What more could one ask for from an opera? As far as I am concerned, this is a forgotten Alpha Plus.

11 responses to “Gaetano Donizetti: Gabriella di Vergy (1838)”

  1. Dario Ricordo Avatar
    Dario Ricordo

    Thank you for reviewing this! I recommended this to you as I had enjoyed it immensely, and I’m glad you liked it too!


  2. Yes, yes, this is the kind of Donizetti we want to hear!! Great review, thank you!
    After 3 weeks of going through Erkel and Moniuszko (who are both great), it’s a bit of a relief to hear an opera in a language I can just about understand. Looking forward to an Ambroise Thomas review soon (no pressure, honestly, just when you have time!!).

    What exactly are the appendix pieces on the youtube video? Does it mean they were borrowed for use in other operas?


    1. The appendix items on this specific recording are actually selections from the 1826 version of Gabriella di Vergy and not additions to the 1838 score as is usually the case with an Opera Rara appendix section. They appear to have been added mostly to give the listener an understanding of how much Donizetti progressed technically over the intervening twelve years, and to fill up the second disc a little. The role of Raoul in 1826 was written for a contralto instead of a tenor and is sung by a mezzo-soprano on the recording. The selections consist mostly of the entrance piece for Raoul and duet with Gabriella from act one. There is also one section from act two which appears to be just Gabriella reacting to Raoul and Fayel. This music was mostly reworked into other operas by Donizetti, although, most of the 1838 score was also reworked into other operas or was borrowed from other operas (the prelude for instance is the same as that of Maria de Rudenz, which was first performed in 1838).


      1. I do find Donizetti rather hit and miss don’t I? Sometimes I love what he produced, other times I find it just dreadfully dull. When one wrote some 70 to 80 operas, they cannot all be masterpieces. Some of them can seem like autopilot, and a lot of them have the same music in them. I think I have heard one female chorus around eight or nine different times, and so far I have only reviewed 31 (?) of the Donizetti operas. With him, I always try to start in a state of neutrality, because I might miss something great and disregard a forgotten masterpiece. Or it ends up being a terrible bore. But I wait for the work to unfurl on its own terms. I avoid reading outside reviews until after I have finished the stars section, just to make sure I am not influenced by another reviewer and I give my own assessment.


  3. Oh, I see… so that’s why the appendix items “feel” older, now I understand. Thanks!
    You’re right, it is very much hit and miss with Donizetti, but when it’s good, it’s REALLY good!
    Are you going to review all 70+ Donizetti operas? (Not entirely a serious question.) If so, you can’t avoid Don Pasquale, which is a review I’d love to read. I know you don’t like it, but how about that “state of neutrality”?


    1. My problem with Pasquale is not the music, it is the plot. I will never review it because Sir Denis Forman already did in The Good Opera Guide, which is where I get my methodology for this blog.

      I do have a handful of Donizetti operas that I want to review, like Ugo, conte di Parigi, Parisina, Pietro il Grande. But they will have to wait until summer (I am a high school Social Studies teacher). I have already reviewed most (not all of course) of the dramatic works (and a number of comedies as well) from 1830 onward and those 30+ reviews could keep you busy for a while!


  4. Thank you… yes, that should keep me busy! I see you have posted the Ugo, conte di Parigi review, so I’ll do that next.
    I used to “teach” (very casually!!) opera here in Japan, and I wonder if you have ever mentioned operas in your Social Studies classes?


    1. I do, my students know that I write a blog since I also proctor a Writing class (which is mostly going over grammar rules and online quizzes once a week). I never actually go into details about any of the operas with them and I doubt any of them bother to look at the blog since they are mostly 14-17 year olds. But yet again, I was into opera at the age of 9!


  5. I see. Can you remember exactly what piece of music awakened your interest in opera at the age of 9?
    Until my mid-20s, I didn’t dislike opera, but it wasn’t really “my cup of tea.” Then two items triggered my interest. One was, of all things, the Habanera from Carmen. The second was the Mozart “Turkish Finale” scene in the Amadeus movie. I went out and bought a CD set of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which I enjoyed enough to make me want to explore a little more. For no particular reason, my next CD purchase was Rossini’s Tancredi. I remember finding it quite difficult, doubting whether this was really worth the effort. But then I came to the finale of Act 1, which absolutely blew my mind. That was probably the real awakening, and I have loved opera ever since.


    1. I was actually into Shakespeare from when I was eight, and instrumental classical music from around 2 or 3. My father used to say that I loved Beethoven when I was a baby/toddler. There wasn’t a specific opera or piece of music that I heard which triggered an epiphany of opera love. For me it is more a love of 19th century music in general, in particular opera because it combines theatre (a play) with that musical style. Which is why, if you look at my chronological operas list, it is mostly focused around 1800-1900. Essentially, I will listen to anything from the Romantic era.


  6. Yes, the 19th century is definitely the best, especially 1830 onwards.
    Thank you again for the reviews!


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