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Lost and found

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

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"[Donizetti] wanted for a long time to come back to this story with his more mature musical style, to keep the best bits from his 1827 opera, but to flesh out the whole thing with more mature music," Crutchfield said in an interview conducted at Caramoor, a private estate an hour north of New York City that has been converted into an idyllic summer-music venue.

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The Italian translation of the manuscript, Crutchfield finally determined, was made hastily for a production requested by a still unknown English opera house.

Apparently, it was never performed, but that was how the music had traveled from Paris to England, a country Donizetti never visited.

The Italian version, as edited by Crutchfield and British scholar Roger Parker, was finally given its première at Covent Garden in 1997. But Crutchfield says he feels the quite different French version will reveal the opera at its best - and closest to the way Donizetti intended.

"The Italian version is a bit of a mishmash," he says, thrown together by Donizetti in great haste. Neither the music nor the plot hangs together very well.

Other scholars agree. "This French-language version displays Donizetti at his most accomplished" ... "at the very apex of his powers," says Alexander Weatherson, chairman of the London-based Donizetti Society, in an e-mail message. It was probably still on Donizetti's desk when the composer fell ill in the mid-1840s and never recovered.

Though 75 percent to 80 percent of the French opera was in the Covent Garden manuscript, some key parts were missing. For years, Crutchfield was unsure that a full French production could ever be mounted.

Then last year, he visited the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and discovered more "crucial" material designed for use in the French version of "Elisabeth" - about eight pages in all.

He had nearly put together the jigsaw puzzle. Only two small gaps remained: An eight-bar segment in a duet in the last act had been torn off, and one of the heroine's entrance arias had a gap of a minute or 90 seconds.

Using the surrounding context and the existing libretto, Crutchfield says that he's found "a logical way" to fill in the gaps with surmised material.

Crutchfield, who played his first Donizetti opera as a rehearsal pianist when he was 14, says next month's première is important partly because Donizetti is a composer "who has still not been fully measured by the musical world, partly because he wrote so much."

Composer's reputation on upswing

Donizetti produced 70 operas, 18 string quartets, hundreds of sacred compositions, more than 200 songs for voice and piano, and several other chamber works.

His other operas are either serious tragedies or outright comedies, Crutchfield says.

"This is neither one. It's a spirited, upbeat adventure story.... It has a flavor all its own. It's not just one more of what we already have 15 of."

Among Crutchfield's favorite moments in it is a lamenting chorus sung by the Siberian exiles that is "gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous music. Heart-rending. Real prime Donizetti."

Italian opera scholar Gossett surmises that if there's going to be a problem about this work joining the Donizetti canon, it will be because it was never rehearsed under the composer's guiding eye.

When Gossett edited the Donizetti opera "Don Pasquale," he says, he saw firsthand how many changes Donizetti wrote onto the score during rehearsals. "We have no idea what he might have come up with had he taken it through a rehearsal period," Gossett says.

But even in this form, Gossett concedes, it's a significant achievement.

"We're talking about a mature composer, a composer at the height of his powers who can do anything he wants. And he chooses to do this," Gossett says. "That makes it interesting."