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Lost and found

A journalist stumbles across a lost opera in London. Next month, he gets to conduct its debut.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 27, 2003


Will Crutchfield didn't set out to find a missing opera. It just turned out that way.

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In 1984, the journalist spent three days crawling around the basement of the Covent Garden opera house in London.

In the back were stacks of dusty 19th-century manuscripts, maybe 500 in all, wrapped in cloth covers. Rummaging through them, he found one signed on the front page by Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti.

"It was obviously a different animal entirely," says Mr. Crutchfield, now an opera conductor. "It was obvious that someone had started preparing a production of this opera and it had been broken off" for some reason.

The manuscript was a jumble. Some pages had singed edges, indicating the piece had been in a fire. Some of the libretto was in French, some in Italian. Was there one opera here or more? The manuscript was looking curiouser and curiouser.

"That was the beginning of a long, long detective story," he says.

It didn't take long to discover the pages were in fact a lost opera. But it took nearly two decades, and return trips to Europe, to piece together a version capable of being produced. On July 17, that big step in this ongoing detective story will be taken at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, N.Y., when Crutchfield himself will conduct "Elisabeth," the never-produced Donizetti opera he rediscovered, in a semi-staged production (costumes and props, but no sets).

Whether "Elisabeth" is an entirely "new" opera may be the source of some continuing debate, since it's based on an early 1827 Donizetti opera of another name. Evidently, illness impeded Donizetti, who died in 1848, before this new version could reach the stage.

The Donizetti find "is unusual, but it is by no means unique," says Philip Gossett, a professor of music at the University of Chicago and an expert on Italian opera, in a phone interview. People do unearth new opera manuscripts from time to time. "It does happen," he says.

Earlier this month, he had learned of the discovery of a previously unknown version of a Rossini opera. Dr. Gossett himself reconstructed the original version of Giuseppe Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball)," called "Gustavo III," which premièred at the Göteborg Opera in Sweden last September.

Earlier this month, the Boston Early Music Festival staged Johann Georg Conradi's "Ariadne" for the first time in nearly 300 years. It had premiéred in 1691, but the manuscript had been lost until a copy was discovered in the Library of Congress in 1972.

The lost and found department

Elsewhere in the arts, discoveries of lost works - or information about known works - keep welling up (see related story on John Singer Sargent's "Madame X"). Sometimes, forgotten masterpieces emerge when old houses are sold.

For 250 years, the Michelangelo drawing "Mourning Woman" was stuck inside a scrapbook at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, England, until an inventory in 1997 revealed it.

"The Taking of Christ" (1602), a painting by the Italian master Caravaggio that was presumed lost, was found at a Jesuit college in Dublin, Ireland, in 1993.

And just last year, London's Tate Museum put out a worldwide plea for missing works by J.M.W. Turner, perhaps Britain's greatest painter. In just a year, 500 have been located. But 400 more are still unaccounted for.

In Crutchfield's Donizetti manuscript, it turned out, much of the plot and some of the music of the first and second acts had appeared in an 1827 Donizetti opera called "Otto Mesi in Due Ore (Eight Months in Two Hours)." The plot is based on a well-known story about a young woman who braved hardships to travel alone from Siberia to Moscow (or St. Petersburg in some versions) to win a pardon from the czar for her falsely accused father.

But what excited Crutchfield was how much of the manuscript was new and unknown, including an entirely different third act, a new language (French), and a new name ("Elisabeth" was one of three possibilities marked on parts of the music).