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

Roger Quilter: The Complete Quilter Songbook, Vol. 3

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow present Volume 3 in their series The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook, on Stone Records.

Richard Danielpour – The Passion of Yeshua

A contemporary telling of the Passion story which uses texts from both the Christian and the Jewish traditions to create a very different viewpoint.

Les Talens Lyriques: 18th-century Neapolitan sacred works

In 1770, during an extended tour of France and Italy to observe the ‘present state of music’ in those two countries, the English historian, critic and composer Charles Burney spent a month in Naples - a city which he noted (in The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771)) ‘has so long been regarded as the centre of harmony, and the fountain from whence genius, taste, and learning, have flowed to every other part of Europe.’

Herbert Howells: Missa Sabrinensis revealed in its true glory

At last, Herbert Howells’s Missa Sabrinensis (1954) with David Hill conducting the Bach Choir, with whom David Willcocks performed the piece at the Royal Festival Hall in 1982. Willcocks commissioned this Mass for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1954, when Howells himself conducted the premiere.

Natalya Romaniw - Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul

Sailing home to Corinth, bearing treasures won in a music competition, the mythic Greek bard, Arion, found his golden prize coveted by pirates and his life in danger.

Le Banquet Céleste: Stradella's San Giovanni Battista

The life of Alessandro Stradella was characterised by turbulence, adventure and amorous escapades worthy of an opera libretto. Indeed, at least seven composers have turned episodes from the 17th-century Italian composer’s colourful life into operatic form, the best known being Flotow whose three-act comic opera based on the Lothario’s misadventures was first staged in Hamburg in 1844.

Purcell’s The Indian Queen from Lille

Among the few compensations opera lovers have had from the COVID crisis is the abundance – alas, plethora – of streamed opera productions we might never have seen or even known of without it.

Ethel Smyth: Songs and Ballads - a new recording from SOMM

In 1877, Ethel Smyth, aged just nineteen, travelled to Leipzig to begin her studies at the German town’s Music Conservatory, having finally worn down the resistance of her father, General J.H. Smyth.

Wagner: Excerpts from Der Ring des Niebelungen, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi, RCA-Sony

This new recording of excerpts from Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen is quite exceptional - and very unusual for this kind of disc. The words might be missing, but the fact they are proves to have rather the opposite effect. It is one of the most operatic of orchestral Wagner discs I have come across.

Wagner: Die Walküre, Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Simon Rattle, BR Klassik

Simon Rattle has never particularly struck me as a complex conductor. He is not, for example, like Furtwängler, Maderna, Boulez or Sinopoli - all of whom brought a breadth of learning and a knowledge of composition to bear on what they conducted.

Dvořák Requiem, Jakub Hrůša in memoriam Jiří Bělohlávek

Antonín Dvořák Requiem op.89 (1890) with Jakub Hrůša conducting the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The Requiem was one of the last concerts Jiří Bělohlávek conducted before his death and he had been planning to record it as part of his outstanding series for Decca.

Philip Venables' Denis & Katya: teenage suicide and audience complicity

As an opera composer, Philip Venables writes works quite unlike those of many of his contemporaries. They may not even be operas at all, at least in the conventional sense - and Denis & Katya, the most recent of his two operas, moves even further away from this standard. But what Denis & Katya and his earlier work, 4.48 Psychosis, have in common is that they are both small, compact forces which spiral into extraordinarily powerful and explosive events.

A new, blank-canvas Figaro at English National Opera

Making his main stage debut at ENO with this new production of The Marriage of Figaro, theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins professes to have found it difficult to ‘develop a conceptual framework for the production to inhabit’.

Massenet’s Chérubin charms at Royal Academy Opera

“Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio … Now I’m fire, now I’m ice, any woman makes me change colour, any woman makes me quiver.”

Bluebeard’s Castle, Munich

Last year the world’s opera companies presented only nine staged runs of Béla Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

The Queen of Spades at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If obsession is key to understanding the dramatic and musical fabric of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, the current production at Lyric Opera of Chicago succeeds admirably in portraying such aspects of the human psyche.

WNO revival of Carmen in Cardiff

Unveiled by Welsh National Opera last autumn, this Carmen is now in its first revival. Original director Jo Davies has abandoned picture postcard Spain and sun-drenched vistas for images of grey, urban squalor somewhere in modern-day Latin America.

Lise Davidsen 'rescues' Tobias Kratzer's Fidelio at the Royal Opera House

Making Fidelio - Beethoven’s paean to liberty, constancy and fidelity - an emblem of the republican spirit of the French Revolution is unproblematic, despite the opera's censor-driven ‘Spanish’ setting.

A sunny, insouciant Così from English Touring Opera

Beach balls and parasols. Strolls along the strand. Cocktails on the terrace. Laura Attridge’s new production of Così fan tutte which opened English Touring Opera’s 2020 spring tour at the Hackney Empire, is a sunny, insouciant and often downright silly affair.

A wonderful role debut for Natalya Romaniw in ENO's revival of Minghella's Madama Butterfly

The visual beauty of Anthony Minghella’s 2005 production of Madama Butterfly, now returning to the Coliseum stage for its seventh revival, still takes one’s breath away.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Claire Rutter as Lucrezia Borgia [Photo by Stephen Cummisky courtesy of English National Opera]
04 Feb 2011

Lucrezia Borgia, ENO

Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia at the English National Opera, London, is an interesting hybrid. The opera is performed “straight” so to speak, but encased in a frame of short filmed passages that add background and depth. These films don’t intrude, but enhance.

Gaetano Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia: Claire Rutter; Alfonso d'Este; Duke of Ferrara: Alastair Miles; Gennaro: Michael Fabiano; Orsini: Elizabth DeShong; Liverotto: Tyler Clarke; Vitellozzo: Jonathan Stoughton; Petrucci: Gerard Collet; Gazella: James Gower; Rustighello: Richard Roberts; Gubetta: Matthew Hargreaves; Voice: Michael Burke. Director: Mike Figgis; Set Designer: Es Devlin; Costumes: Brigitte Reifenstuel; Lighting: Peter Mumford. Conductor: Paul Daniel; Chorus master: Martin Merry. English National Opera; Coliseum, London, 31st January 2011.

Above: Claire Rutter as Lucrezia Borgia

All photos by Stephen Cummisky courtesy of English National Opera

 

At last the ENO experiment of using directors from fields other than opera has been vindicated. Mike Figgis is not an opera director so the opera, which proceeds with minimal intervention. But Figgis is an innovative film-maker, so he knows what makes good drama. This production at the Coliseum, London operates on two parallel levels: film and opera, which done together expand the experience.

Few stories could have more dramatic potential than the legend of Lucrezia Borgia. Incest, violence, political intrigue, orgies. Even Anna Nicole Smith, subject of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera, doesn’t come close. Yet Donizetti seems less interested in Lucrezia than in her supposed son, Gennaro. Cesare Borgia and Pope Alexander VI don’t even appear in the opera. Yet the plot predicates on the fact that the Borgia clan cause extreme fear and hatred. Surely Lucrezia alone can’t have been solely responsible for their terrible reputation? There are other loose ends in the drama. Gennaro fixates on his mother but doesn’t wonder who his father might be. His friends are out for bloodthirsty vengeance. Yet they’re easily distracted when invited to a party. Even when Gennaro is fleeing for his life after escaping from the Duke of Ferrara, he stops to join his friends carousing. So much for dramatic logic! Donizetti’s aim was to write lovely arias fto showcase his singer’s abilities, and in that sense he succeeds. But apart from the bel canto displays, it’s psychologically and dramatically inert.

Significantly, Figgis is under no delusions that anyone can become an opera director overnight. That’s refreshingly honest, since good opera direction requires some musical nous. (In fact, Figgis is a musician). But because he understands drama, he adds to the production in the way he does best, by making films that encase the opera, adding commentary and background without impinging on the stage action itself.

The films are sumptuously lavish, shot on location in Italy. The extravagant Renaissance settings dazzle, but Figgis knows that the reality behind this glamour was brutal. The Borgias operated in an era of depravity and corruption. Figgis’s films start quietly, with the actresses discussing the period while getting into costume. They speak of horrific things, like prostitutes being brutalized and Jews being castrated. You flinch, but you should, for the world Lucrezia lived in wasn’t pretty. Then the actresses transform into role, like savage animals. A metaphor for the times.

Donizetti presents Lucrezia without much explanation, so her evil deeds seem to spring from nowhere. Thus the films act as reminders of Lucrezia’s past. Wealthy and powerful as she is, she’s been abused herself, and grew up surrounded by treachery. In the films, she witnesses how ruthless her father and brother can be when they murder a servant in cold blood, thinking he’s her lover. Lucrezia relives the birth of her son, who is taken from her. This brings Gennaro into the story, for he didn’t exist as historic fact. Before she marries the Duke of Ferrara she’s got to prove she’s a virgin, which everyone (including the Duke) knows is a humiliating farce. The films give psychological depth to Lucrezia’s character. Donizetti, for whatever reason, may have avoided this, but modern audiences are more accustomed to dramatic nuance.

Borgia_ENO_2011_01.gifClaire Rutter, Elizabeth DeShong, James Gower, Gerard Collett, Jonathan Stoughton and Tyler Clarke

Frames are a recurring theme throughout. Gennaro (Michael Fabiano) and Orsini (Elizabeth DeShong) converse under a proscenium arch. Later Lucrezia (Claire Rutter) and her husband Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (Alastair Miles) appear on an ornate, golden throne. It’s stunning. But look carefully, it’s a giant version of the tabernacle on a Catholic altar, which opens to reveal sacred objects. Lucrezia’s father was the Pope. When Gennaro and his friends celebrate, they’re shown seated in a line around a long table. It’s a direct reference to The Last Supper, In fact, it is their last supper as soon they’ll all die. The audience gasps at the audacity, but it reminds us that the Borgias were far more blasphemous.

Because the films are so luscious, the opera itself appears one dimensional. Movements are static. Apart from the main images on stage, backgrounds are flat, no attempt at realism. Since this looks like opera without direction, those who hate directors ought to love this. Though Figgis is not an opera man, he’s telling us that image and substance are never quite the same. Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia is art, not reality.

Innovative as this approach is, it probably wouldn’t work with a less stylized opera. Nor, perhaps, one more expressive orchestrally. Donizetti wrote the opera as vehicles for the singers off his time to display their vocal prowess. The soprano part is a delight, and Claire Rutter sings it with radiant richness. Her part is easily the most rewarding and she makes her presence felt. Michael Fabiano, as Gennaro, also sings more convincingly than his role allows. Elizabeth DeShong, Alastair Miles and supporting singers are good, too, but this isn’t the most demanding of operas, despite moments of beauty.

Borgia_ENO_2011_04.gifMichael Fabiano, Elizabeth DeShong, Tyler Clarke, Jonathan Stoughton, James Gower and Gerrard Collett

Translation into English doesn’t help, though. At times it felt that the singers were obeying their natural sense of line and intonation, but drawing back to fit the text. That’s a problem with English in general, which isn’t as melodic as Italian. The overall sound of an opera communicates, not just words. There were some horrible rhymes that tried to be funny but weren’t. Orsini’s lines, on the other hand, were so wacky that they worked in an anarchic way. “Let’s respect the protocol, and not indulge in alcohol” and “Chianti! the wine of Dante!”. DeShong’s delivery was so lively that I realized at last what Orsini’s role in this opera might be. The silliness is deliberate, like whistling in a graveyard. Oddly enough, it makes sense of the idea that theatre can be divorced from drama. Donizetti may not have done much to develop Lucrezia Borgia as a personality in her own right, but thanks to Mike Figgis and ENO, we can approach her story in parallel ways. Presumably the films and opera could be experienced separately, but together they enhance each other.

For more details refer to the ENO website.

Anne Ozorio

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):