English National Opera – Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia – Opera in a prologue and two acts to a libretto by Felice Romani after Victor Hugo’s play Lucrèce Borgia [Sung in an English translation by Paul Daniel, with English surtitles]

Lucrezia Borgia – Claire Rutter
Alfonse d’Este – Alastair Miles
Gennaro – Michael Fabiano
Maffio Orsini – Elizabeth DeShong
Liverotto – Tyler Clarke
Vitellozzo – Jonathan Stoughton
Petrucci – Gerard Collett
Gazella – James Gower
Rustighello – Richard Roberts
Gubetta – Matthew Hargreaves
Voice – Michael Burke

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Paul Daniel

Mike Figgis – Director
Es Devlin – Set designs
Brigitte Reiffenstuhl – Costume designer
Peter Mumford – Lighting designer

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 31 January, 2011
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Lucrezia Borgia, ENO, January 2011. Photograph: Stephen CummiskyPhial M for Murder? It can be a gamble engaging a director new to opera to take on a relatively unfamiliar work in a big house such as the London Coliseum. Sometimes it can pay off; sometimes not. Regular opera-goers are no strangers to talented and experienced directors having spectacular misses. For Mike Figgis’s direction of “Lucrezia Borgia” there are plenty of misgivings, but the production has its moments, mostly vocal ones.

The cast on paper was strong and in practice more than that, with some noteworthy returns and debuts. “Lucrezia Borgia” is rarely staged; expectations were high. The last performances in London were in the early 1980s at the Royal Opera House with Joan Sutherland and Alfredo Kraus, and the title-role has attracted such as Montserrat Caballé (who rocketed to overnight stardom as a replacement in a concert performance in New York) and latterly the veteran Edita Gruberovà has found the role rewarding. One can see why it is attractive to the dramatic coloratura. The ability to dazzle technically, as well as command the stage dramatically, is pre-requisite for a successful interpretation. Claire Rutter has these attributes. She has an ample, agile voice with dark tones that lend dramatic bite to her singing, and with security and power at the top of the voice. Her singing was committed and became increasingly assured. Of necessity she made much dramatic point through vocal colouring, as any self-respecting singer of the bel canto repertoire should.

Claire Rutter as Lucrezia Borgia, Elizabeth DeShong as Maffio Orsini, James Gower as Gazella, Gerard Collett as Petrucci, Jonathan Stoughton as Vitellozzo & Tyler Clarke as Liverotto (Lucrezia Borgia, ENO, January 2011). Photograph: Stephen Cummisky Gennaro, the young nobleman whom Lucrezia recognises as the son taken away from her shortly after his birth, was sung with free and open-throated tone and considerable charm by Michael Fabiano. Alastair Miles was a mellifluous and sonorous Alfonse d’Este, although he always sounds too ‘nice’ for some of the nastier characters he plays. Also likeable was Elizabeth DeShong as Maffio Orsini, normally a ‘trouser role’. DeShong was here made to play the part as a renaissance tomboy and referred to as “she” – a jarring modification. Orsini gets a final act ‘Brindisi’ which here had all the necessary bravura, but DeShong was heard to best advantage at her first appearance when her character relates the story of the battle where Orsini and Gennaro develop their interdependent bond. The smaller roles of Gennaro and Orsini’s friends and Lucrezia and Alfonse’s henchmen were decently sung but remained little more than ciphers.

Michael Fabiano as Gennaro (Lucrezia Borgia, ENO, January 2011). Photograph: Stephen CummiskyTherein lay the problem of the production. We started with a film that replaces Donizetti’s short yet evocative Prologue, and then the first sound heard was Lucrezia’s voice, rather than the offstage banda music and the appearance of Orsini and his revelling friends. Then each subsequent Act and/or scene was initiated with a film depicting episodes in the adolescent and young adult life of Lucrezia. Perhaps it is interesting to know about her incestuous and abusive relationships with her father and brother but, apart from enlightening the audience about why the woman behaved as she did, these episodes bore little relevance to the plot set by the composer bar the fact that she bore a son who was forcibly taken away from her. There seems little evidence that these other episodes were major concerns to either Donizetti or his librettist Romani. There was no reference to them in Paul Daniel’s self-conscious ‘with-it’ translation that seems deliberately to avoid any of the poetry of the original libretto. This was an occasion where the excellent diction of the cast (and it was superb) made one focus on the inanities and irritating modernisms of the translation, such as the terrible punning that heralded the ‘Brindisi’; and as the cinematic Lucrezia was given her baby, I expected a subtitle saying “Congratulations! It’s a little baby tenor!” The films sap the tension and energy from the staging.

Mike Figgis’s operatic inexperience showed at every turn. The interpreters of the smaller roles seemed not to be required to do much more than stand in rows and sing. Orsini’s “group of lads” was hardly boisterous. Their initial insulting of Lucrezia was tame (and she therefore could not muster much dramatic force in response, which undermined the plot to a significant degree). Likewise, the tense relationship between Lucrezia and her husband was left to be clarified by vocal means entirely – no body-language required to heighten what was being sung. Gennaro’s destruction of the Borgia crest and his subsequent arrest and beating was frankly risible and made insignificant. One could only pity the chorus as, despite Figgis’s assertion that he wanted a Greek chorus with carefully choreographed yet minimal movement, these poor souls have been left to enact a range of stock gestures and dangerously close to Gilbert & Sullivan pastiche.

Even the anticipated tension that surrounds Lucrezia’s attempted murder of Orsini’s ‘gang’ that accidentally includes Gennaro was not the vengeful episode it should be. They died invisibly in the darkness; it was not clear if all had survived as long as the Gennaro did and leaves ones pondering if Gennaro had some rare genetic or metabolic disorder that altered the pharmacokinetics of the fatal draught. The settings are simple and atmospheric, but with reservations. Was the stage within a stage of the final Act deliberately send up bel canto tragic form? Was the visual reproduction of “The Last Supper” a witty comment on the last meal of Orsini and Co? Yes – misgivings a plenty. Away from his translating services, Paul Daniel led a solid performance that intermittently caught fire, the music presaging some of Verdi’s writing – especially “Rigoletto” – and moments where the Donizetti’s melodic individuality stood out. The playing was similar; fitfully shining, otherwise solid.

Ultimately this frustrating staging does Donizetti’s opera a disservice, and might even consign it once more to being a rarity.

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