Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

First Night of the BBC Proms : Elgar The Kingdom

The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.

Le nozze di Figaro, Munich

One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.

Music for a While: Improvisations on Henry Purcell

‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.

Nabucco at Orange

The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.

Richard Strauss: Notturno

Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.

Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.

La Flûte Enchantée (2e Acte)
at the Aix Festival

In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.

Ariodante at the Aix Festival

High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.

Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.

Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford

It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?

La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne

‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’

Sophie Karthäuser, Wigmore Hall

Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera

‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.

Leoš Janáček : The Cunning Little Vixen, Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.

La Traviata in Marseille

It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).

Madama Butterfly in San Francisco

Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.

Luca Francesconi : Quartett, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.

Puccini Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House, London

Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..

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):