Lucrezia Borgia belongs to that latter group, and it might well have earned a place alongside Lucia and L’Elisir if Donizetti had been able to take more time in its composition (the booklet essay relates how the first rehearsals came only a week after Felice Romani had delivered the libretto to the composer!). Some of the music is uninspired, if professional, and the score’s most memorable numbers go to a relatively minor character (Orsini, a pants role for mezzo). The story itself may be fraudulent history, but it puts on stage an intriguing group of characters quite different from the formulaic romantic contraptions of many other mid-19th century operas.
Donizetti and Romani’s Lucrezia follows the historic portrait of a power-hungry woman who finds poison a useful way to protect and further her position. But she is also a loving mother, although she had to give the son she loves, Gennaro, over to an orphanage at an early age. Gennaro hates the Borgias, and his activities eventually draw a death sentence from Lucrezia’s husband, the Duke. She manages to save her son’s life once, but at the end of the opera she unwittingly poisons him (along with several others she quite wittingly intended to kill), and he refuses her antidote, dying in her arms after they have both sung at some length over the tragic turn of events.
The production Naxos presents originated at the Bergamo Musica Festival, in a recording compiled from November 30th and December 2nd 2007 performances. Angelo Sala’s set design employs stone columns and stairs, leaving most of the stage bare for appropriate props. More budget seems to have gone to Cristina Aceti’s costumes, of a traditional opulence. Lighting designer Valerio Alfieri casts much of the action in shadow and sickly blue light. It all adds up to a fairly conventional staging, but director Francesco Belloto has a good way with the singers, eliciting detailed reactions from not only the leads but from the entire cast, including chorus.
Dimitra Theodossiou, the Lucrezia, either hasn’t sought or hasn’t received many offers to perform in the U.S., but many a stateside opera fan would find her impressive. Not a conventionally beautiful woman, she has an old-time presence, self-contained , even regal. Without trying to judge the size of her voice from a recording, her soprano has that penetrating edge to it that usually carries well. The top can get steely, but she definitely has the notes. And when Donizetti wants the voice to move as nimbly as Lucrezia’s calculating mind does, Theodossiou doesn’t struggle a bit.
While acceptable, Roberto De Biasio’s Gennaro is not on her level. Before he warms up the intonation is not secure, and even once he is in control, the voice itself has little that is attractive about it. Enrico Giuseppe Iori makes for an impressively threatening Duke, and Nidia Palacios does well by the enjoyable music for Orsini. Efficient support comes from conductor Tiziano Severini and the Bergamo forces.
There are no extras on the Naxos disc. Paul Campion’s booklet essay is concise and informative, and there’s a helpful synopsis tied to the track listings, as well as the artist’s biographies. Anyone curious about this Donizetti opera should give this a look and listen.