The motives for leaving a work of music incomplete can be many and they are not always known. Donizetti began working on Le Duc d’Albe in 1839, in view of a staging at the Opéra of Paris. The project, however, was temporarily put aside. Towards the end of 1840, the soprano Rosine Stolz, then the undisputed star of the Opéra, categorically refused to play the role of Hélène in Le Duc d’Albe, which for all intents and purposes marked the demise of the opera. The dispute had even legal consequences, with the impresario of the Opéra, Léon Pillet. Donizetti gradually abandoned the work; then his health deteriorated to the point that he could no longer compose, and the opera was left unfinished, with some parts fully orchestrated and others for which we have no musical indication whatsoever.
Many years later, the incomplete score of the Duc d’Albe was acquired by the Milanese editor Giovannina Lucca, then a fierce contender of Ricordi, who entrusted the composer Matteo Salvi (who had been, for a period of time, Donizetti’s pupil) and a team of consultants formed by Ponchielli, Dominiceti and Bazzini with the task of finishing the job.
The French text was translated into Italian. Il Duca d’Alba was premièred at the Apollo theatre in Rome on 22nd May 1882. It was not, however, a success, and the opera never entered the repertoire. A new version of Il Duca d’Alba, for some aspects even more faithful to Donizetti’s language than the one by Salvi, was made in 1959 by the American conductor Thomas Schippers, who staged it at an edition of the Spoleto Festival that has remained famous.
With these arrangements and modifications, it had become almost impossible to distinguish what was by Donizetti and what was not. This problem was addressed a few years ago by Roger Parker, who, in his critical edition, restored the original Donizetti writing previous to Matteo Salvi’s changes and additions. But because the opera could not be performed like that, it was once again necessary to complete it, and this time this was done in such a way as to be perfectly clear what had been added. On the initiative of Aviel Cahn, director of the Vlamsee Oper, the opera was staged in 2012 in a version completed by an Italian contemporary composer, Giorgio Battistelli, whose working method was diametrically opposed to that of Salvi and Schippers and aimed at making plainly recognizable, through the use of a radically different language, the additions to the original writing. Battistelli’s task was not to repair but to rewrite.
His job of completion, where differences are exalted rather than disguised, has resulted in the version of Le Duc d’Albe here recorded, for the first time in the original French. The newly-written parts, for example the ample finale, are easily recognizable; indeed the listener has no trouble understanding where Donizetti ends and Battistelli begins or vice versa - which was not the case with the versions by Salvi and by Schippers. It is worth mentioning, incidentally, that the only passage of Le Duc d’Albe - or rather of Il Duca d’Alba - that became famous was the tenor aria Angelo casto e bel, which was not written by Donizetti but was composed from scratch by Matteo Salvi (or by someone else in the team working for Giannina Lucca). A bitter, indeed ironic fate for an opera that, as witnessed by this recording, does not lack musical and dramatic pages worthy of the best Donizetti.