Lucrezia Borgia


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.

LucreziaGaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2009 | Bertrand de Billy, Christof Loy, Edita Gruberova, Pavol Breslik, Franco Vassallo, Alice Coote, Bruno Ribeiro, Christian Rieger, Christopher Magiera, Erik Årman, Steven Humes, Emanuele D’Aguanno, Christian van Horn, Elisabeth Haag | EuroArts

I can easily understand why many might not like Christof Loy’s opera stage productions. If I didn’t know better myself, I’d swear that he’s having a laugh with this 2009 production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia for the Bavarian State Opera. When I say I know better however, that’s taking a superior stance, but rather speaking from experience that no matter how minimally staged, no matter how ludicrous the proposition or inappropriate the costume design, and as far removed as they seem to be from the original stage directions, each of his recent productions that I have seen (Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Theodora) have, without exception, been as powerful a performance of the work in question as any I’ve ever seen. That’s why, despite initial reservations that he surely can’t be serious with this bizarre staging of Lucrezia Borgia, it only takes a few moments of actually listening to the performances to see that, whatever he’s doing, the full power and beauty of the work is all there and coming across.

This Lucrezia Borgia, I have to say, doesn’t look like any bel canto opera production you’ve seen before, but it does look a lot like a typical Christof Loy production - bare minimally decorated stage, everyone wearing dinner jackets, a couple of chairs scattered around. That’s 15th century Venice of the Prologue. The only real distinguishing feature is the distinguished figure of Edita Gruberova as Lucrezia Borgia, wearing a period costume in bold red while everyone else is dressed in black and white and the stage is grey, and the words LUCREZIA BORGIA spelt out in big block letters along the back wall. That’s something at least, meaning that it will allow one letter to be dropped at a significant point in the First Act, even if that’s about as much as a concession as you’ll find here to the stage directions in the libretto. Oh, and Orsini and his men look like public schoolboys, with floppy hair and their trousers rolled-up to just below the knees. What on earth is that all about?

Despite confusion over just what exactly Christof Loy’s intentions could possibly be, and the nagging feeling that he really is displaying nothing but contempt for the work, your ears should tell a different story and you might even begrudgingly admit that somehow - without really being able to put your finger on the reason why - the production does actually work. Lucrezia Borgia is not an easy opera to make work on the stage. The plot line, derived from a work by Victor Hugo and awkwardly adapted for Donizetti by Francesco Maria Piave, is rather ridiculous, weighed down by exposition and unlikely coincidences. If we’re to accept the conflict within Lucrezia over her maternal feelings for Gennaro and her monstrous activities as part of the murderous Borgia family, you have to find some humanity in there, and that’s not easily found within the libretto. Although Donizetti’s scoring can seem a little bit bel canto by numbers, and even with Bertrand de Billy conducting it does tend to plod along in places, there are nonetheless some marvellous opportunities for a singer to bring out that underlying humanity, but really you need a singer like Joan Sutherland to be capable of expressing it. Or Edita Gruberova.

Commanding terrific presence from the moment she appears in her red period dress while all around her speak of youth and modernism, Gruberova - with respect - looks like a relic from the past. And this is perhaps where Christof Loy’s production - created specifically for the Bayerische Staatsoper following Loy and Gruberova’s previous collaboration on Roberto Devereux - comes into its own. Lucrezia Borgia is indeed a relic of the past, the latest in a long line of a dynasty of terror whose crimes have not been forgotten by Orsini and his men, who are at long last speaking out against the tyranny of the Borgias. The challenges of playing the role of Lucrezia Borgia then are not so much in the singing - which, to say the least, is challenge enough - but in making Lucrezia work as a real character. On paper it doesn’t work, the libretto filled with flaws and inconsistencies that are nearly impossible to reconcile within the personality of one person. Is Lucrezia Borgia a monster? Undoubtedly. The libretto and the testimony of Orsini and his colleagues and her revenge upon them make that quite evident even within the opera itself, never mind the historical record. Even her reaction to the insult to the family name that is perpetrated by Gennaro shows that the same heartless monster still resides within, regardless of the sensitivity she has shown earlier. Is she really capable of loving motherly sentiments and compassion or are they just an expression of self-interest in her own family name, of a mother for her son? Making you like the character or sympathise with her is not the issue however, making her come to life is the real challenge, and Edita Gruberova can do that. Not many others can.

Donizetti’s style and the rather static nature of the bel canto repertoire, which involves more standing around and singing than action or drama, is also a relic of the past and, perhaps recognising that, Christof Loy plays up to it. No amount of props and costumes and period detail is going to make Lucrezia Borgia any more convincing as a drama, but creating an environment that gives the necessary space to the actual real strengths of the work - the arias and the coloratura given expression by singers of sufficient stature and quality - and actually highlighting them against the rather drab background, seems to me to be working with the nature, qualities and weaknesses of the opera itself. Yes, some of the directorial choices can seem wilfully bizarre, but the basic simplicity of having the words LUCREZIA BORGIA in capital letters on the backdrop throughout reminds you that this is history and character writ large, played large by Donizetti, and performed the only way it can be performed. It takes singers of sufficient strength of personality and the necessary ability to rise to the heights required to make this grotesque and absurd relic of another age meaningful, comprehensible and even beautiful.

The decision then, following their previous collaboration on the stunning Munich production of Roberto Devereux, to build this new production of Lucrezia Borgia around Gruberova, proves to be a great success, and is perhaps the only way it would work. It might as well say EDITA GRUBEROVA on the backdrop. She is simply mesmerising to watch and to listen to, rising to the challenges that the nature of her character represents and meeting the demanding nature of the arias. In fact, she shows that they are one and the same, that the complex nature of the character can only be expressed though the phrasing and the delivery, with full command and awareness of how one’s own tone of voice can be used towards meeting that objective. Experience, if you like, but it’s more than that. For Lucrezia Borgia to succeed it needs more than just a good technique and experience, it needs a voice of real substance and personality, and Edita Gruberova certainly has that. It helps considerably though if you have a strong Gennaro and Pavol Breslik is one of the finest young tenors around. I don’t think there is sufficient attention paid to making his character “work” within the dramatic context of the opera and to a large extent the other roles - Alice Coote’s Orsini and Franco Vassallo’s Don Alfonso - are similarly sung well, but weakly characterised (there are limits admittedly to what a stage director or performer can do with this libretto), but - as is made clear here - the opera is all about LUCREZIA BORGIA, and this is one production that is worthy of being capitalised.

There is a slight downside to the production choices however in that it doesn’t always come across as effectively as it might on the screen, or indeed in the audio mixing. The use of metal plates for a raised platform causes a fair amount of clatter and rattling, while the boxed empty stage leads to an echoing tone that affects the acoustics of the singing and, it seems, the orchestration. The quality of the singing is evident - and Edita Gruberova doesn’t have too much trouble being heard - but the tone is metallic and far from the warm sound you would expect for a bel canto opera. Within the limitations of the mostly bare stage, Brian Large directs as well as he can for the small screen, taking in the impact of the whole stage with edits that are attuned to the rhythms of the music, but it still never really manages to bring the staging to life. The image quality is strong in the High Definition presentation, the audio tracks - PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0 - are however rather limited in dynamic range by the acoustics. The Blu-ray also includes a fascinating hour-long documentary ‘The Art of Bel Canto - Edita Gruberova’, charting the career of the Czech-Slovak soprano and her approach to opera. The BD is region-free and subtitles for the main feature are English, German, French, Italian and Spanish.

LucreziaGaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

English National Opera, London | Paul Daniel, Mike Figgis, Claire Rutter, Michael Fabiano, Elizabeth DeShong, Alastair Miles | The Coliseum, London - February 18th, 2011

Even without reading the programme notes for Mike Figgis’ production of Lucrezia Borgia for the English National Opera, it’s clear from very early on that the medium isn’t an environment that the film director feels entirely comfortable with. Even before the opera proper starts, some flashback scenes written and filmed in Rome by Figgis as a background to what takes place in the opera, are projected onto a white screen hanging over the stage, making it clear that he has approached the opera in much the same way that he would make a film.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing – opera is open to incorporating many disciplines and giving them varying weight, as well as being open to the kind of reinvention that new technology and modern ideas can bring to it – and there has accordingly been a healthy cross-over of film directors between the cinema and opera. While the short films that accompany the opera then are not at all needed, they are nevertheless a valid response to what the director sees as a need to give psychological, real-world depth to a character who is larger than life and, in Donizetti’s opera, played larger than life. There are, one could say, inconsistencies in the characterisation and gaps in credibility that arise out of its novelistic source in the work of Victor Hugo and its attempts to provide redemption for a complex and really quite notorious historical figure whose vile nature and her murderous inclinations towards anyone who criticises her family name is scarcely tempered by her love for her lost son, Gennaro.

In this case however, the impression is given that not only does Figgis not know his audience – an opera audience does not need the same kind of literal, realist approach as cinema, with the psychological background of the characters laid-out in this way – but it seems that he doesn’t understand opera, and the fact that, in a strong well-written opera (and Lucrezia Borgia certainly falls into that category), all the explanations that are needed, all the expressions of personality and the motivational factors – the guilt and the passion that lies at the heart of the characters – are all contained within the music and within the singing itself, even more so than in the narrative of the libretto, which can otherwise seem contrived and scarcely credible.

This failure to understand and get to grips with the medium he is working in or the audience he is working for, results in a rather over-literal, static and reductive approach for a director who can otherwise be quite avant-garde and experimental when it comes to filmmaking (Timecode, Hotel, COMA). A measure of his mistrust of opera, his audience and his own reaction towards it is in his choice to play Orsini (a female playing the role of a male), as a female, as if an opera audience couldn’t possibly grasp this convention that is so far removed from the rather more literal approach of cinematic realism. On his approach to the actual staging, there is also some merit to reducing the amount of clutter and glitz that usually accompanies a period, bel canto opera, and just letting the music and singing stand on its own. For the most part, the performances are certainly up to that task, particularly from Claire Rutter in the role of Lucrezia, but there is also a strong performance (particularly in the brindisi scene) from Elizabeth DeShong as Orsini, and the bond of love and friendship that lies between them actually does take on an interesting dimension and create other resonances with Orsini played as a female.

Lucrezia

There is however an additional constraint that Figgis finds himself struggling with, and that is the policy of the English National Opera to perform opera in English wherever possible, regardless of the suitability of the opera. Admittedly, some opera can work surprisingly well in English – Wagner’s Parsifal, seen at the same opera house the following night – worked no less effectively in English than it does in German, but bel canto opera, for me at least, is entirely associated with the qualities and sounds of the Italian language. Conductor Paul Daniel worked on the translation himself, and really, he failed to do justice to the work, with some of the choices made provoking chuckles from the audience at inappropriate points, not at all helping to establish the desired tone, and making Figgis’ attempt at psychological depth and realism all the more difficult. Significantly, the short film segments made by Figgis himself were in Italian with English subtitles.

The reduction of the staging and the simplification of movements does have some impact then in reducing the over-the-top propensities of the opera that Figgis evidently feels need to be constrained, and while it restricts the dynamic and results in what is not the most eye-catching of productions, it does at least focus the attention on the singing. One gets the impression however that the reduction of the staging into smaller areas is an attempt by Figgis to scale down the canvas, as per the framing in his film work, and break it down into discreet, static, sections that can be brought together when reworked for the cinema or television screen. As such, it would seem that Mike Figgis has been brought in more with the first ever 3-D Live opera broadcast in mind (tomorrow 23rd February 2011 for Sky Arts 2 HD and for cinema). Here one can imagine the director being more at home, progressively experimenting in a filmed medium, using simultaneous action and multiple angles. As such however, unfair though it might be for the theatrical audience, his stage production of Lucrezia Borgia feels like an unfinished product that will only come to fruition when it is brought to the screen.