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

Handel's Brockes-Passion: The Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall

Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747) was the Metastasio of Hamburg? But, the meditative, poetic, sacred drama on the Passion story -known as the Brockes-Passion, though its full title is Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus aus den vier Evangelisten in gebundener Rede vorgestellt (Jesus who was martyred and died for the sins of the world, presented in verse out of the four Evangelists) - which the Hamburg writer and politician published in 1712 was set almost as many times as some of the Caesarean Poet’s opera seria libretti.

POP Butterfly: Oooh, Cho-Cho San!

I was decidedly not the only one who thought I was witnessing the birth of a new star, as cover artist Janet Todd stepped in to make a triumphant appearance in the title role of Pacific Opera Project’s absorbing Madama Butterfly.

The Maryland Opera Studio Defies Genre with Fascinating Double-Bill

This past weekend, the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS) presented a double-billed performance of two of Kurt Weill’s less familiar staged works: Zaubernacht (1922) and Mahagonny-Songspiel (1927).

Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall: Focus on Sir Harrison Birtwistle

The Nash Ensemble’s annual contemporary music showcase focused on the work of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, a composer with whom the group has enjoyed a long and close association. Three of the six works by Birtwistle performed here were commissioned by the Nash Ensemble, as was Elliott Carter’s Mosaic which, alongside Oliver Knussen’s Study for ‘Metamorphosis’ for solo bassoon, completed a programme was intimate and intricate, somehow both elusive in spirit and richly communicative.

McVicar's Faust returns to the ROH

To lose one Marguerite may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. But, with the ROH Gounod’s Faust seemingly heading for ruin, salvation came in the form of an eleventh-hour arrival of a redeeming ‘angel’.

A superb Semele from the English Concert at the Barbican Hall

It’s good to aim high … but be careful what you wish for. Clichéd idioms perhaps, but also wise words which Semele would have been wise to heed.

A performance of Vivaldi's La Senna festeggiante by Arcangelo

In 1726 on 25 August, Jacques-Vincent Languet, Comte de Gergy, the new French ambassador to the Venetian Republic held a celebration for the name day of King Louis XV of France. There was a new piece of music performed in the loggia at the foot of Languet's garden with an audience of diplomats and, watching from gondolas, Venetian nobles.

Matthew Rose and Tom Poster at Wigmore Hall

An interesting and thoughtfully-composed programme this, presented at Wigmore Hall by bass Matthew Rose and pianist Tom Poster, and one in which music for solo piano ensured that the diverse programme cohered.

Ekaterina Semenchuk sings Glinka and Tchaikovsky

To the Wigmore Hall for an evening of magnificently old-school vocal performance from Ekaterina Semenchuk. It was very much her evening, rather than that of her pianist, Semyon Skigin, though he had his moments, especially earlier on.

Hubert Parry's Judith at the Royal Festival Hall

Caravaggio’s depiction (1598-99) of the climactic moment when the young, beautiful, physically weak Judith seizes the head of Holofernes by the enemy general’s hair and, flinching with distaste, cleaves the neck of the occupying Assyrian with his own sword, evokes Holofernes’ terror with visceral precision - eyes and screaming mouth are wide open - and is shockingly theatrical, the starkly lit figures embraced by blackness.

La Pietà in Rome

Say "La Pietà" and you think immediately of Michelangelo’s Rome Pietà. Just now Roman Oscar-winning film composer Nicola Piovani has asked us to contemplate two additional Pietà’s in Rome, a mother whose son is dead by overdose, and a mother whose son starved to death.

Matthias Goerne: Schumann – Liederkreis, op 24 & Kernerlieder

New from Harmonia Mundi, Matthias Goerne and Lief Ove Andsnes: Robert Schumann – Liederkreis, op 24 and Kernerlieder. Goerne and Andsnes have a partnership based on many years of working together, which makes this new release, originally recorded in late 2018, well worth hearing.

Orfeo ed Euridice in Rome

No wrecked motorcycle (director Harry Kupfer’s 1987 Berlin Orfeo), no wrecked Citroen and black hearse (David Alagna’s 2008 Montpellier Orfée [yes! tenorissimo Roberto Alagna was the Orfée]), no famed ballet company (the Joffrey Ballet) starring in L.A. Opera’s 2018 Orpheus and Eurydice).

Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel - a world premiere at English National Opera

Jack the Ripper is as luridly fascinating today as he was over a century ago, so it was no doubt sensationalist of the marketing department of English National Opera to put the Victorian serial killer’s name first and the true subject of Iain Bell’s new opera - his victims, the women of Whitechapel - as something of an after-thought. Font size matters, especially if it’s to sell tickets.

Tosca at the Met


The 1917 Met Tosca production hung around for 50 years, bested by the 1925 San Francisco Opera production that lived to the ripe old age of 92.  The current Met production is just 2 years old but has the feel of something that can live forever.

Drama Queens and Divas at the ROH: Handel's Berenice

A war ‘between love and politics’: so librettist Antonio Salvi summarised the conflict at the heart of Handel’s 1737 opera, Berenice. Well, we’ve had a surfeit of warring politics of late, but there’s been little love lost between opposing factions, and the laughs that director Adele Thomas and her team supply in this satirical and spicy production at the ROH’s stunningly re-designed Linbury Theatre have been in severely short supply.

Mozart’s Mass in C minor at the Royal Festival Hall

A strange concert, this, in that, although chorally conceived, it proved strongest in the performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto: not so much a comment on the choral singing as on the conducting of Dan Ludford-Thomas.

Samson et Dalila at the Met


It was the final performance of the premiere season of Darko Tresnjak’s production of Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. Four tenors later. 

The Enchantresse and Dido and Aeneas
in Lyon

Dido and Aeneas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse and Tchaikowsky’s L’Enchantresse, the three operas of the Opéra de Lyon’s annual late March festival all tease destiny. But far more striking than the thematic relationship that motivates this 2019 festival is the derivation of these three productions from the world of hyper-refined theater, far flung hyper-refined theater.

The devil shares the good tunes: Chelsea Opera Group's Mefistofele

Every man ‘who burns with a thirst for knowledge and life and with curiosity about the nature of good and evil is Faust ... [everyone] who aspires to the Unknown, to the Ideal, is Faust’.

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):