Pope's Daughter loves son
Difficult not to raise an eyebrow or two when the name of Lucrezia Borgia comes up, recalling naughty things: "the Borgias are having an orgy to-night", "incest – the game the whole family can play" and the father saying to the mother after the son has been diagnosed as having an Oedipus complex "what does it matter as long as he loves his mother?".
It was the first night of a new production by English National Opera of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia (January 31). The programme book quotes historians who are now saying that this queen of scrapes and rapes became a loving mother in middle-age, a do-gooder who hadn't poisoned anybody for ever so long.
The plot and libretto are full of dotty antics, the composer knew he was on to a hot number, what with a Pope's daughter renowned for being a whore and a murderer. It was Gaetano's forty-sixth opera; when he composed it he was thirty-six years of age, had eleven years more to live with twenty-four more operas to come. In under forty years there were over forty productions world-wide after the successful première at La Scala, Milan.
Does the music rise above rum-ti-tum and the formulas current at that time (1833)? Yes, quite often, in particular, Lucrezia's last gasp aria and the contralto/trouser-role nobleman Orsini's second act Brindisi (one of the only operatic numbers Clara Butt sang, quite brilliantly too!), given in the Coli, well sung by the American mezzo Elizabeth deShong.
The title-role is long dramatic and brimfull of coloratura. Claire Rutter was up to snuff, carried it off superbly but with the occasional rasp. The tenor, little Oedipus-Schmedipus in the old story, sang bravely with good sound; he was also American, Michael Fabiano. With a little more personal sparkle, he could be a world beater.
Mike Figgis, noted film director, in his operatic debut, brought his projector with him, having made half-a-dozen film snippets (different cast) to add footnotes and background to the mores and deplores current in the Vatican. Often beautiful shots, a coupling and some grisly scenes were shown to 'till-readies' in the orchestral pit. Good idea, this, although some of the old operatic hands resented the celluloid intrusion.
Sets (Es Devlin) and costumes (Brigitte Reiffenetual) were lavish and a visual delight – bravo! Paul Daniel conducted a performance full of nuances and vitality. he also made the English version that was sung, o.k. except for a lot of 2011 words like 'crazy' and 'problem' that jarred a bit as Victor Hugo's original play is set in 1498. Orchestra and chorus in good fettle. A good evening, Donizetti lives.