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Renée Fleming as Lucrezia Borgia [Photo by Karin Cooper]
16 Nov 2008

Lucrezia Borgia at the Washington National Opera

After a somewhat shaky start to the season, as my recently posted review of La traviata attests, Washington National Opera has added considerable luster to its roster this November with the infusion of spectacle and star power in two new productions.

G. Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia (Renée Fleming), Gennaro (Vittorio Grigolo), Duke Alfonso (Ruggero Raimondi), Maffio Orsini (Kate Aldrich), Rustighello (Yingxi Zhang), Jeppo Liverotto (Jesus Hernandez), Apostolo Gazella (Grigory Soloviov), Ascanio Patrucci (Oleksandr Pushniak), Astolfo (David B. Morris), Gubetta (Robert Cantrell), Oloferno (Jose Ortega). Washington National Opera. Conductor: Plácido Domingo. Director: John Pascoe.

Above: Renée Fleming as Lucrezia Borgia

All photos by Karin Cooper courtesy of Washington National Opera.


My subject today is the first of these, Donizetti’s perpetually underperformed 1833 masterpiece Lucrezia Borgia. The next installment, to appear in a few days, will comment on the second – Bizet’s perennial favorite, the 1875 Carmen.

Lucrezia is a fiendishly difficult work for all involved. Spectacular settings of Renaissance Venice and Ferrara require the expensive kind of luxury in staging – luxury without ostentation. The director must create a sympathetic figure out of a legendary mass murderess, whose grit Donizetti evidently admired enough to make her a soprano, a victim, a mother, and a girl with a heart – most of the time… Meanwhile, the lead singer has to survive the endless bel canto lines and the head-spinning coloratura of her dramatic role written for a lyrical voice, all the while staying “in character” – and a character that psychologically is barely comprehensible to most of us. This was a tall order, and the result was worth the price of admission, which at the Washington National is always memorable in and of itself.

Grigolo,-Aldrich_Lucrezia-B.pngVittorio Grigolo as Gennaro, Kate Aldrich as Maffio Orsini.
A major ingredient in the production’s success was the fact that it was a Gesamtkunstwerk of sorts, with both stage direction and visual design in the excellent hands of the admirable John Pascoe. The stunning visuals, a fusion of old-world luxury with edgy and abstract modern lines, were sophisticated yet not overbearing. Central to the design were gigantic stone walls, first parting in welcome to the carnival atmosphere of Venice, the endless party town, then closing ominously to lock the characters and the audience in. Together with the fabulous lighting, a persistently excellent WNO feature (designer Jeff Bruckerhoff), these sets enhanced the complex psychological drama woven by Mr Pascoe the stage director. His reading of the libretto explained (if not entirely justified) Lucrezia’s bloodthirsty nature and reputation for promiscuity by casting her as a victim of incest and sexual abuse – an interpretation for which there is a valid historical precedent, as well as some veiled hints in the Donizetti score. Just to top it off, the historical heroine’s fictional son, Gennaro, is torn between an oedipal passion for his mother and a homoerotic one for his best friend Orsini – it is almost hard to believe Lucrezia has not yet joined The Tudors as a prime-time show on Cinemax!

Renée Fleming was billed as the star attraction of the show, and so she was. The singer’s famously buttery voice was on full display, even in Donizetti’s inhumane coloratura passages, which not only seemed easy, but were – a rare treat indeed – musical. Ms Fleming’s formidable acting skills served her best through the sections of the drama in which Lucrezia comes across as a sympathetic victim, fighting desperately for survival and the remaining shreds of her feminine dignity. It was harder to appear sympathetic in her Act 3 Scene 2 entrance, clad in male warrior attire (an unfortunate costume choice, in my opinion) and rejoicing in having just poisoned a group of admittedly foolish but basically harmless young men.

2_Aldrich,-Grigolo,-Fleming.pngKate Aldrich as Maffio Orsini, Vittorio Grigolo as Gennaro, Renée Fleming as Lucrezia Borgia

Vittorio Grigolo as Gennaro had an easier task. His character’s sexual ambiguity is defined situationally, in relation to others throughout the opera, while Gennaro himself essentially remains unchanged – a young, passionate, straightforward (if not totally straight) macho warrior. Mostly what is required to strike the right tenor here is, forgive the obvious pun, the right tenor. Mr Grigolo is in a possession of a fantastic one: sonorous, yet crisp and metallic, a highly appropriate timbre for Donizetti’s character. Despite his youth, the singer was a worthy partner to Ms Fleming. Then again, he started performing professionally at age thirteen, and his first solo gig was at the Sistine Chapel – not your average résumé!

Vittorio Grigolo was not the only young singer in the cast. He was partnered with mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich in the travesti role of Maffio Orsini. One of the least experienced members of the ensemble, Miss Aldrich did an admirable job, which under normal circumstances would have garnered her well-deserved accolades. However, she was cursed by proximity. She simply could not quite hold her own in this all-star production and came across, undeservedly perhaps, as only adequate. On the other hand, the performance of the most venerable member of the line-up, the legendary Verdian bass-baritone Ruggero Raimondi, demonstrated both the advantages and pitfalls of experience. The 67-year-old singer appeared in a role with a significantly lower tessitura than those he performed in his early years. The part was shorn of most of its coloratura in an effort to accommodate the lack of flexibility in the voice, particularly conspicuous against Ms Fleming’s nonchalant virtuosity. Yet, unencumbered by the customary technical fireworks, Mr Raimondi was free to unleash his impressive dramatic talent, arguably more important than vocal prowess in the role of villainous Duke Alfonso. It was an honor to watch the old master at work.

Another master, Raimondi’s old partner Placido Domingo, was also involved in the production as the conductor of the performance. Unfortunately, on that front I have few laurel wreaths to award. Just as visual spectacle has consistently been one of the strongest elements of WNO’s productions, the company’s orchestra is almost always the weakest link. Donizetti’s score for Lucrezia Borgia is quite difficult for its time and genre; it contains, for instance, an unusual amount of brass writing, both in the pit and off-stage. Mr Domingo did a good job as a conductor, and the orchestra sounded better than the last time I heard it (in La traviata), but that is a very low bar to hurdle. In comparison with the level of artistry displayed by the singers and the director-designer in this production, the orchestral performance was barely passable, and I wish Mr Domingo, as the artistic director as well as conductor of the Washington National Opera could do something to improve a situation that surely cannot satisfy him. Other than that, Lucrezia is a world-class production, and the company is to be congratulated on its well-deserved success.

Olga Haldey

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