Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Desert Island Delights at the RCM: Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe

Britannia waives the rules: The EU Brexit in quotes’. Such was the headline of a BBC News feature on 28th June 2016. And, nearly three years later, those who watch the runaway Brexit-train hurtle ever nearer to the edge of Dover’s white cliffs might be tempted by the thought of leaving this sceptred (sceptic?) isle, for a life overseas.

Akira Nishimura’s Asters: A Major New Japanese Opera

Opened as recently as 1997, the Opera House of the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) is one of the newest such venues among the world’s great capitals, but, with ten productions of opera a year, ranging from baroque to contemporary, this publicly-owned and run theatre seems determined to make an international impact.

The Outcast in Hamburg

It is a “a musicstallation-theater with video” that had its world premiere at the Mannheim Opera in 2012, revived just now in a new version by Vienna’s ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wein for one performance at the Vienna Konzerthaus and one performance in Hamburg’s magnificent Elbphilharmonie (above). Olga Neuwirth’s The Outcast and this rich city are imperfect bedfellows!

Leonard Bernstein: Tristan und Isolde in Munich on Blu-ray

Although Birgit Nilsson, one of the great Isolde’s, wrote with evident fondness – and some wit – of Leonard Bernstein in her autobiography – “unfortunately, he burned the candles at both ends” – their paths rarely crossed musically. There’s a live Fidelio from March 1970, done in Italy, but almost nothing else is preserved on disc.

Monarchs corrupted and tormented: ETO’s Idomeneo and Macbeth at the Hackney Empire

Promises made to placate a foe in the face of imminent crisis are not always the most well-considered and have a way of coming back to bite one - as our current Prime Minister is finding to her cost.

Der Fliegende Holländer and
Tannhäuser in Dresden

To remind you that Wagner’s Dutchman had its premiere in Dresden’s Altes Hoftheater in 1843 and his Tannhauser premiered in this same theater in 1845 (not to forget that Rienzi premiered in this Saxon court theater in 1842).

WNO's The Magic Flute at the Birmingham Hippodrome

A perfect blue sky dotted with perfect white clouds. Identikit men in bowler hats clutching orange umbrellas. Floating cyclists. Ferocious crustaceans.

Puccini’s Messa di Gloria: Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra

This was an oddly fascinating concert - though, I’m afraid, for quite the wrong reasons (though this depends on your point of view). As a vehicle for the sound, and playing, of the London Symphony Orchestra it was a notable triumph - they were not so much luxurious - rather a hedonistic and decadent delight; but as a study into three composers, who wrote so convincingly for opera, and taken somewhat out of their comfort zone, it was not a resounding success.

WNO's Un ballo in maschera at Birmingham's Hippodrome

David Pountney and his design team - Raimund Bauer (sets), Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes), Fabrice Kebour (lighting) - have clearly ‘had a ball’ in mounting this Un ballo in maschera, the second part of WNO’s Verdi trilogy and which forms part of a spring season focusing on what Pountney describes as the “profound and mysterious issue of Monarchy”.

Super #Superflute in North Hollywood

Pacific Opera Project’s rollicking new take on The Magic Flute is as much endearing fun as a box full of puppies.

Leading Ladies: Barbara Strozzi and Amiche

I couldn’t help wondering; would a chamber concert of vocal music by female composers of the 17th century be able sustain our concentration for 90 minutes? Wouldn’t most of us be feeling more dutiful than exhilarated by the end?

George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill at Wigmore Hall

This week, the Wigmore Hall presents two concerts from George Benjamin and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, the first ‘at home’ on Wigmore Street, the second moving north to Camden’s Roundhouse. For the first, we heard Benjamin’s now classic first opera, Into the Little Hill, prefaced by three ensemble works by Cathy Milliken, Christian Mason, and, for the evening’s spot of ‘early music’, Luigi Dallapiccola.

Marianne Crebassa sings Berio and Ravel: Philharmonia Orchestra with Salonen

It was once said of Cathy Berberian, the muse for whom Luciano Berio wrote his Folk Songs, that her voice had such range she could sing the roles of both Tristan and Isolde. Much less flatteringly, was my music teacher’s description of her sound as akin to a “chisel being scraped over sandpaper”.

Rossini's Elizabeth I: English Touring Opera start their 2019 spring tour

What was it with Italian bel canto and the Elizabethan age? The era’s beautiful, doomed queens and swash-buckling courtiers seem to have held a strange fascination for nineteenth-century Italians.

Chameleonic new opera featuring Caruso in Amsterdam

Micha Hamel’s new opera, Caruso a Cuba, is constantly on the move. The chameleonic score takes on a myriad flavours, all with a strong sense of mood or place.

Ernst Krenek: Karl V, Bayerisches Staatsoper

Ernst Krenek’s Karl V op 73 at the Bayerisches Staatsoper, with Bo Skovhus, conducted by Erik Nielsen, in a performance that reveals the genius of Krenek’s masterpiece. Contemporary with Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Berg’s Lulu, and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Krenek’s Karl V is a metaphysical drama, exploring psychological territory with the possibilities opened by new musical form.

A Sparkling Merry Widow at ENO

A small, formerly great, kingdom, is on the verge of bankruptcy and desperate to prevent its ‘assets’ from slipping into foreign hands. Sexual and political intrigues are bluntly exposed. The princes and patriarchs are under threat from both the ‘paupers’ and the ‘princesses’, and the two dangers merge in the glamorous figure of the irresistibly wealthy Pontevedrin beauty, Hanna Glawari, a working-class girl who’s married up and made good.

Mozart: Così fan tutte - Royal Opera House

Così fan tutte is, primarily, an ensemble opera and it sinks or swims on the strength of its sextet of singers - and this performance very much swam. In a sense, this is just as well because Jan Phillip Gloger’s staging (revived here by Julia Burbach) is in turns messy, chaotic and often confusing. The tragedy of this Così is that it’s high art clashing with Broadway; a theatre within an opera and a deceit wrapped in a conundrum.

Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child: an ROH world premiere

The Royal Opera House’s choice of work for the first new production in the splendidly redesigned Linbury Theatre - not unreasonably, it seems to have lost ‘Studio’ from its name - is, perhaps, a declaration of intent; it may certainly be received as such. Not only is it a new work; it is billed specifically as ‘our first opera for teenage audiences’.

Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the first moments of the recent revival of Sir David McVicar’s production of Elektra by Richard Strauss at Lyric Opera of Chicago the audience is caught in the grip of a rich music-drama, the intensity of which is not resolved, appropriately, until the final, symmetrical chords.

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):