Castronovo, Charles


Lucrezia

Gaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013 | Julian Reynolds, Guy Joosten, Paul Gay, Elena Moşuc, Charles Castronovo, Silvia Tro Santafé, Roberto Covatta, Tijl Faveyts, Jean-Luc Ballestra, Jean Teitgen, Alexander Kravets, Justin Hopkins, Stefan Cifolelli, Alain-Pierre Wingelinckx | La Monnaie - Internet Streaming, February 2013

La Monnaie’s production of Lucrezia Borgia maintains a consistency of style and quality of interpretation that has been evident in all their works broadcast this season via their internet streaming service. Like La Traviata, Lulu and Manon Lescaut, it’s not without a certain amount of controversy either. Modern, boldly coloured and neon-lit, with a stage set that is far from conventional in concept and configuration, much less traditional in period in design, it was however another bold vision where the spectacle was rivalled by the interpretation of the music and excellent singing from an intriguing cast line-up.

It’s well established that the plot and characterisation of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia are not the most convincing. The work is filled with inconsistencies, improbabilities and weak characterisation. Donizetti’s music too, if we’re honest, has its moments but there’s an awful lot of plodding conventionality in the scoring. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense or at least it’s expecting a bit much for the audience to sympathise with the idea that there’s a loving mother beneath Lucrezia’s notoriety as a monstrous killer who even in the opera commits a number of atrocities that include the inadvertent murder of her own son. The nature of her love for Gennaro is itself somewhat dubious and borderline incestuous. Gennaro’s actions and motivations and love unfortunately are no more credible. And that’s to say nothing of the plot involving poisoned wines and antidote plot twists.

The complications of the characterisation and the melodrama in Lucrezia Borgia do however provide a wealth of material that can be worked effectively by a strong cast of real personality, particularly if they have strong direction. It’s a work that builds up scene upon scene towards a magnificent dramatic finale in the way that only Donizetti or Rossini can do, if the production has singers of sufficient stature to pull it off, particularly in the title role. La Monnaie’s production benefits in this respect from a strong committed central performance by Elena Moşuc, who not only hits all those extraordinarily difficult high notes but she does so with a soft unforced expressiveness and true dramatic conviction.

As Gennaro, Charles Castronovo’s lovely rounded lyric tenor is more than capable of the necessary range and power, but he’s a little declamatory and unable to really bring anything out of the role and the complicated (badly-written) relationship with Lucrezia. There’s a suggestion that the director has to some extent modelled this Gennaro on Donizetti himself, but I’m not sure this is established entirely successfully. The adventurous and successful casting of the two leads extends to the other roles. Paul Gay’s lighter bass-baritone is revealed as being much better suited to the bel canto of Don Alfonso than the boom of Grand Opéra, while Silvia Tro Santafé makes a good impression as Orsini.

It’s also been well established that a “realistic” period setting isn’t necessarily going to make Lucrezia Borgia any more convincing. It’s not a historical drama nor is it a movie or a documentary. Like any operatic work from this period, the emotions expressed principally through the singing - love, anger, betrayal and revenge - are far more important than the historical characters or the period. Guy Joosten’s setting of the opera, with sets by Johannes Leiacker, looks like a circus or even a nightclub with a catwalk leading down from a curtained entrance that has Borgia written up in neon-lights. Large menacing figures representing aspects of Lucrezia (Maternity, Death, Evil, Nobility) loom over the circular stage of the Cirque Royal, with the orchestra located to the right hand side at the back. There’s evidently some conceptual layers added here, but the drama itself is nonetheless played out within this according the intentions of the libretto. More or less.

There are some liberties taken then in the stage production, but no more than Donizetti and Felice Romano’s working of Victor Hugo’s fictional drama and only as much as is necessary to make the notoriously difficult and somewhat static dramatic staging for this opera work. This was no stand-and-deliver performance and at the very least it was visually impressive in its colourful stylisations, with figures wearing masks and costumes - pigs, clowns, ‘Clockwork Orange‘ droogs, topless ladies in saucy nun costumes - that not only fit with the Venetian Carnival revelry in Lucrezia Borgia, they also give a sense of characterisation and personality that is hard to find in the work itself. The success of the production was assured by the superb playing of the La Monnaie symphony orchestra and a lively, intense and invigorating interpretation of the score by conductor Julian Reynolds.

La Monnaie/De Munt’s production of Lucrezia Borgia was broadcast on the internet via their internet streaming service, the performance recorded on the 23rd and 26th February 2013. The next broadcast of their exceptional season is the world premiere of a new work by Benoît Mernier, La Dispute.

MireilleCharles-François Gounod - Mireille

L’Opéra National de Paris, 2009 | Marc Minkowski, Nicolas Joel, Inva Mula, Charles Castronovo, Sebastien Droy | FRA Productions

There would appear to be some questions of the value of Gounod’s forgotten 1864 opera and some risks involved in the director of the Paris opera, Nicolas Joel, reviving it for its Paris Opera premiere in 2009, but watching and listening to it now, restored as closely as possible to the original intentions of the composer, it seems extraordinary that Mireille has been overlooked so long and has never been part of the French opera repertoire.

Certainly Mireille and its subject matter are somewhat old-fashioned, the opera tied very strongly to its source in the romantic and bucolic 19th century Provençal poetry of Fredéric Mistral, but Gounod’s musical interpretation of the material is practically perfect.  The pastoral scenes of ordinary workers in the fields, their modest hopes and ambitions for nothing more than a pure love are elevated to a dramatically romantic level by the lush arrangements and beautiful arias, Gounod even introducing folk dances of the region into the score and the performance.  In some ways it’s a five-act version of Cavalleria Rusticana and ultimately, it’s just as emotionally charged.

The Opéra National de Paris’ production is equally as impressive, the staging concretely literal, Joel putting the sun-drenched fields of Provence right up there on the stage of the Palais Garnier.  The themes are certainly of the kind that could perhaps bear a more abstract lyrical interpretation – the sun, the land and religious fervour or faith being dominant themes throughout – but there are no modernisations or clever concepts, and the style remains traditional, but no less amazing for it.

The stage is superbly and brilliantly lit to evoke the light and colours of a cornfield in the south of France in midsummer, darkened to evoke the Rhône at midnight, blazing at the key scene of the Le Crau desert, with sultry dusks and twilights in between.  It’s perhaps over-literal in this respect, the drama accordingly heightened with the evocation of the summer moods and taken to the extremes of religious fervour, but it seems perfectly in keeping with the nature of the region and the lyricism of the Provençal poets.  Inva Mula is positively luminous as Mireille, capturing all the intensity of the extreme emotional journey she undergoes, brilliantly supported by the orchestra of the Paris opera, who are conducted with élan by Marc Minkowski.

The Blu-ray presentation, a Francois Roussillon production, captures the occasion perfectly in High Definition, the golden colours of the set and the lighting exploding off the screen.  The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix catches the tone of the orchestration and singing well and disperses it beautifully.  For some strange reason, the scene selection doesn’t work on my copy, all selections taking you invariably to the beginning of the opera, but the chaptering allows you to get where you want without much difficulty.  The BD comes with an interview featurette and a booklet with a synopsis.