Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Choral at Cadogan: The Tallis Scholars open a new season

As The Tallis Scholars processed onto the Cadogan Hall platform, for the opening concert of this season’s Choral at Cadogan series, there were some unfamiliar faces among its ten members - or faces familiar but more usually seen in other contexts.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2017, Millennium Park, Chicago

As a prelude to the 2017-18 season Lyric Opera of Chicago presented its annual concert, Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, during the last weekend. A number of those who performed in this event will be featured in roles during the coming season.

A Verlaine Songbook

Back in the LP days, if a singer wanted to show some sophistication, s/he sometimes put out an album of songs by famous composers set to the poems of one poet: for example, Phyllis Curtin’s much-admired 1964 disc of Debussy and Fauré songs to poems by Verlaine, with pianist Ryan Edwards (available now as a CD from VAI).

Die Zauberflöte at the ROH: radiant and eternal

Watching David McVicar’s 2003 production of Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House - its sixth revival - for the third time, I was struck by how discerningly John MacFarlane’s sumptuous designs, further enhanced by Paule Constable’s superbly evocative lighting, communicate the dense and rich symbolism of Mozart’s Singspiel.

Fantasy in Philadelphia: The Wake World

Composer and librettist David Hertzberg’s magical mystery tour that is The Wake World opened to a cheering sold out audience that was clearly enraptured with its magnificent artistic achievement.

A Mysterious Lucia at Forest Lawn

On September 10, 2017, Pacific Opera Project (POP) presented Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a beautiful outdoor setting at Forest Lawn. POP audiences enjoy casual seating with wine, water, and finger foods at each table. General and Artistic Director Josh Shaw greeted patrons in a “blood stained” white wedding suit. Since Lucia is a Scottish opera, it opened with an elegant bagpipe solo calling members of the audience to their seats.

This is Rattle: Blazing Berlioz at the Barbican Hall

Blazing Berlioz' The Damnation of Faust at the Barbican with Sir Simon Rattle, Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill, Gabor Bretz, The London Symphony Orchestra and The London Symphony Chorus directed by Simon Halsey, Rattle's chorus master of choice for nearly 35 years. Towards the end, the Tiffin Boys' Choir, the Tiffin Girls' Choir and Tiffin Children's Choir (choirmaster James Day) filed into the darkened auditorium to sing The Apotheosis of Marguerite, their voices pure and angelic, their faces shining. An astonishingly theatrical touch, but absolutely right.

Moved Takes on Philadelphia Headlines

There‘s a powerful new force in the opera world and its name is O17.

Philly Flute’s Fast and Furious Frills

If you never thought opera could make your eyes cross with visual sensory over load, you never saw Opera Philadelphia’s razzle-dazzle The Magic Flute.

At War With Philadelphia

Enterprising Opera Philadelphia has included a couple of intriguing site-specific events in their O17 Festival line-up.

The Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall

Three years into their MOZART 250 project, Classical Opera have launched a new venture, The Mozartists, which is designed to allow the company to broaden its exploration of the concert and symphonic works of Mozart and his contemporaries.

Philadelphia: Putting On Great Opera Can Be Murder

Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell have gifted Opera Philadelphia (and by extension, the world) with a crackling and melodious new stage piece, Elizabeth Cree.

Mansfield Park at The Grange

In her 200th anniversary year, in the county of her birth and in which she spent much of her life, and two days after she became the first female writer to feature on a banknote - the new polymer £10 note - Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park made a timely appearance, in operatic form, at The Grange in Hampshire.

Elektra in San Francisco

Among the myriad of artistic innovation during the Kurt Herbert Adler era at San Francisco Opera was the expansion of the War Memorial Opera House pit. Thus there could be 100 players in the pit for this current edition of Strauss’ beloved opera, Elektra!

Mark Padmore on festivals, lieder and musical conversations

I have to confess, somewhat sheepishly, at the start of my conversation with Mark Padmore, that I had not previously been aware of the annual music festival held in the small Cotswolds town of Tetbury, which was founded in 2002 and to which Padmore will return later this month to perform a recital of lieder by Schubert and Schumann with pianist Till Fellner.

Turandot in San Francisco

Mega famous L.A. artist David Hockney is no stranger at San Francisco Opera. Of his six designs for opera only the Met’s Parade and Covent Garden’s Die Frau ohne Schatten have not found their way onto the War Memorial stage.

The School of Jealousy: Bampton Classical Opera bring Salieri to London

In addition to fond memories of previous beguiling productions, I had two specific reasons for eagerly anticipating this annual visit by Bampton Classical Opera to St John’s Smith Square. First, it offered the chance to enjoy again the tunefulness and wit of Salieri’s dramma giocoso, La scuola de’ gelosi (The School of Jealousy), which I’d seen the company perform so stylishly at Bampton in July.

Richard Jones' new La bohème opens ROH season

There was a decided nip in the air as I made my way to the opening night of the Royal Opera House’s 2017/18 season, eagerly anticipating the House’s first new production of La bohème for over forty years. But, inside the theatre in took just a few moments of magic for director Richard Jones and his designer, Stewart Laing, to convince me that I had left autumnal London far behind.

Giovanni Simon Mayr: Medea in Corinto

The Bavarian-born Johann Simon Mayr (1763–1845) trained and made his career in Italy and thus ended up calling himself Giovanni Simone Mayr, or simply G. S. Mayr. He is best known for having been composition teacher to Giuseppe Donizetti.

Robin Tritschler and Julius Drake open
Wigmore Hall's 2017/18 season

It must be a Director’s nightmare. After all the months of planning, co-ordinating and facilitating, you are approaching the opening night of a new concert season, at which one of the world’s leading baritones is due to perform, accompanied by a pianist who is one of the world’s leading chamber musicians. And, then, appendicitis strikes. You have 24 hours to find a replacement vocal soloist or else the expectant patrons will be disappointed.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):