The Bad Omen


In June of 1840 the director of the Apollo Theater in Rome invited Gaetano Donizetti to compose an opera for the coming season. Apparently the project was doomed from the start.

For his story Donizetti chose an old libretto, Adelia, or the Archer’s Daughter, which had been used by several other composers without much success. To suit Roman tastes a new librettist was brought in to provide a happy ending. Donizetti didn’t care for the composite result, but he set aside his doubts and put it to music.

The omens were not favorable. First there was the false rumor that the Pope had died, which raised fears that the theaters would close until the election of a new Pontiff. Then there was the abortive storm-wracked voyage from Marseilles to Rome that delayed Donizetti’s arrival for several days, and, once he got to Rome, the Tiber River flooding that threatened the theater.

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By the time Donizetti’s opera was finally scheduled, theatergoers were more than ready for it.

When the big debut came on February 11, 1841, it was a fiasco.

Tickets for the opera were such a hot item that the theater management oversold the house. Of those who managed to get in, few could hear the performance over the racket from those who couldn’t. The rattled singers were reluctant to go on.

The conductor stopped the orchestra until the furor died down, only to have chaos break out again when fistfights erupted among the box-holders because a hot-tempered young man overheard insults aimed at the theater directors, one of whom was his uncle.

During the goings-on, the theater director was arrested and carted off to jail along with the cashbox.

When the ruckus had died down, allowing the opera a fair hearing, the verdict was that Adelia was a forced marriage of uninspired music and a lame libretto, and Donizetti blamed himself for overriding his better judgment to write it.

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