English Touring Opera – Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia with Paula Sides, Thomas Elwin & Katie Coventry – directed by Eloise Lally; conducted by Gerry Cornelius


Lucrezia Borgia – Opera in three Acts [sic] to a libretto by Felice Romani after Victor Hugo’s Lucrezia Borgia [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Lucrezia Borgia – Paula Sides
Gennaro – Thomas Elwin
Alfonso – Aidan Edwards
Orsini – Katie Coventry
Astolfo – Jerome Knox
Liverotto – Brenton Spiteri
Vitellozzo – Monwabisi Lindi
Petrucci – Peter Edge
Gazella – Phil Wilcox
Rustighello – Matthew McKinney
Gubetta – Edward Jowle
Brigands – Aaron O’Hare, Masimba Ushe & Ben Knight

Old Street Band
Gerry Cornelius

Eloise Lally – Director
Adam Wiltshire – Designer
Ric Mountjoy – Lighting
Kaitlin Howard – Fight Director

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 3 March, 2023
Venue: Hackney Empire, London

Lucrezia Borgia is virtually synonymous with notoriety and intrigue, and Donizetti’s opera of 1833 certainly recalls the crimes and misdeeds of which she was accused by opponents in her own time, and by detractors among historians and polemicists subsequently. Her fearsome reputation is also sardonically alluded to in the English translation used in the surtitles here when, in an argument with her husband Alfonso about Gennaro (her son from a previous relationship) she threateningly tells him “beware, Alfonso, you are my fourth husband”. But, significantly, her vicious ploys are not represented on the stage in this drama as such. Rather, any scheme she does employ is to try and save Gennaro from punishment by Alfonso for abusing the Borgia name (Gennaro has not yet learned that Lucrezia is his mother). Very unusually for an opera, there is no real romantic love except in the interests of dramatic irony, in that Gennaro is moved to some sort of affection for Lucrezia before discovering her identity, and Lucrezia is wrongly suspected by Alfonso of harbouring adulterous feelings for him.

Eloise Lally’s production neatly brings into clear focus the central relationship between mother and son by ending the work at the point when Gennaro dies in Lucrezia’s lap, without his friends returning to the stage for the concluding chorus or Lucrezia’s own death. His swooning death parallels the sole visual reference to Venice at the beginning here, in the setting of the first Act (actually the Prologue in Donizetti’s original) as he sleeps in a gondola, to which Lucrezia comes and incites him to talk about his childhood, when he was effectively orphaned as he did not know his mother. Singing with bright and supple virtuosity, but without a fierce, hard edge, Paula Sides makes a strikingly sympathetic, even tender Lucrezia, as Donizetti surely envisaged, leaving it to Aidan Edwards to breathe eloquent fury and menace as Alfonso. Thomas Elwin draws a consistently lyrical, expressive vocal line as Gennaro, initially measured, but with some idiomatic Italianate warmth in his characterisation, while Katie Coventry conveys a quietly compelling gravitas in the role of Orsini, the closest of Gennaro’s band of friends to him.

Lally compensates for the lack of a real romantic relationship by developing an amorous interest between Gennaro and Orsini, composed as a trouser role and sung here by a woman, as it was at Donizetti’s premiere. The production otherwise slickly conjures the world of the early-sixteenth-century in Adam Wiltshire’s design, with a hall of stark square columns – initially set against the night sky and haunting full moon – which are forebodingly filled with iron railings to create a more prison-like chamber in the Duke’s palace in Ferrara. The scene for Gennaro and his friends in Act Three (which starts as a drinking song and ends as a brawl) is as sharply choreographed and acted, as the ensemble is sung.

Gerry Cornelius’s conducting of the score is vigorously paced, gripping the audience’s attention as much as the drama on stage, precisely because the tension within both run so tautly in tandem. The period instruments of the Old Street Band lend the music a transparency and mellowness, closer to the orchestral sonorities the composer would probably have known. Despite wheezing woodwind at the very opening, and a solo horn slightly unsure of itself at another point, the performance otherwise carries sufficient force in climactic moments, as well as bringing suitably dusky tone to this variously dark and sombre work. The story may be gloriously sensational, but this above-average score by Donizetti endows it with emotional depth and credibility. Along with agile bel canto singing, English Touring Opera’s presentation of this surprisingly rarely encountered opera is a sure winner, and a better evening of entertainment than any lurid drama Netflix may offer.

Further performances to 26 May at various venues around England

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