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3.11.08

Lucrezia Orgia

Kate Aldrich, Vittorio Grigolo, and Renée Fleming in Lucrezia Borgia, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
Sid Vicious Kate Aldrich, Billy Idol Vittorio Grigolo, and Renée Fleming in Lucrezia Borgia, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
On Saturday night, Washington National Opera opened a new production of Donizetti’s seldom performed Lucrezia Borgia, created for Renée Fleming’s first stage appearance at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The American soprano’s debut in this opera’s title role, at La Scala ten years ago, ran afoul of that theater’s infamous loggionisti. In a recent interview in the Baltimore Sun Fleming told Tim Smith that she regards the unruly crowd’s booing as a “badge of honor,” noting that part of her reason for returning to the role is to “get back on the horse again” and reclaim Lucrezia.

Fleming’s fame comes from operas of a rather different kind, those of Strauss, Dvořák, and Tchaikovsky, as well as Handel and Mozart, although to a lesser degree. Thus far, however, the bel canto repertoire has eluded her, largely because her vocal style is not suited to it. Instead of reducing the wide swath of her voice, so suited for the larger late Romantic repertoire, to a slender ribbon of sound, she often powers her way through delicate lines and high pianissimi, with a thicker, creamier tone and heavier vibrato. Where clean attacks would be preferred, she has a tendency to scoop up to the note, and her renditions of complex fioriture, the bread and butter of the bel canto soprano, have never been that agile or well delineated. Here Fleming showed a willingness to control some of those mannerisms, especially in her Act I aria “Com’è bello,” which had a calm simplicity quite appropriate to the bel canto style. Scooping, sour intonation, and raw low notes returned throughout the evening, however, especially when she seemed to let her guard down and react more instinctively.

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William Ashbrook, Donizetti and His Operas
Donizetti had to work on the opera very quickly, since Felice Romani completed the libretto (English translation) behind schedule. It adapted a recent and rather controversial play, Victor Hugo's Lucrèce Borgia, premiered only a couple years earlier. Lucrezia Borgia, the illegitimate daughter of the man who became Pope Alexander VI, was a notorious member of an infamous family. Praised as one of the most beautiful women of her era, she was married to three different men, and monstrous rumors circulated about her, most of them utterly baseless. Hugo's play, and Donizetti's opera to a degree, capitalize on her reputation as a venomous femme fatale, while contradicting that image with an invented story about her discovery of a long-lost child and her subsequent, accidental poisoning of him.

Ruggero Raimondi and Renée Fleming in Lucrezia Borgia, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
Ruggero Raimondi and Renée Fleming in Lucrezia Borgia, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
As most productions of Lucrezia Borgia do, Washington presented a mixture of the two major versions approved by the composer, with plenty of brief cuts here and there. Fleming chose to omit the cabaletta that Donizetti later added to “Com’è bello,” while ending the opera not with the Finale Nuovo that Donizetti approved in his 1840 revision but with “Era desso il figlio mio.” That dramatically incoherent cabaletta, recorded on Fleming’s 2002 Bel Canto CD (see embedded video below), was a concession the composer reluctantly made to his first Lucrezia, against his better dramatic sense according to Donizetti scholar William Ashbrook. It really works only if the soprano makes it a show-stopping tour de force, which Fleming did not on opening night. The high notes were a little tenuous, leading Fleming not to add a concluding high note, and many of the runs sounded slow and soupy.

The best singing of the evening came from mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich in the trouser role of Gennaro’s friend Orsini, with a rich instrument of many beautiful colors, from a sweet top with some zing down to a volcanic, rich chest voice. Lucrezia’s villainous husband, Alphonso, played to the strengths of the snarling Ruggero Raimondi, who struggled with his highest notes but was a resonant, black leather-caped presence. The only weak link was tenor Vittorio Grigolo as Lucrezia’s long-lost son Gennaro. Grigolo’s pop star good looks may make up for a harsh tone and imprecise technique in some people’s books, especially those who went wild as he took his curtain call shirtless, but not mine. If the originally announced tenor, Giuseppe Filianoti, had not had to be replaced due to a scheduling conflict, it would have been a near-perfect storm. Among the supporting cast, Chinese tenor Yingxi Zhang had a consistently pleasing turn as Gastone. The company’s general director, Plácido Domingo, did no real harm on the podium, but at least some of the ensemble problems are due to his spastic conducting technique.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, 'Lucrezia Borgia': Uneven but Not Uneventful (Washington Post, November 3)

Anthony Tommasini, In a Man’s World, Poison Is Her Best Revenge (New York Times, November 3)

[T. L. Ponick], 'Lucrezia' gets her due (Washington Times, November 3)

Tim Smith, Fleming shines in fanciful 'Borgia' (Baltimore Sun, November 6)

George Loomis, Lucrezia Borgia, Washington National Opera (Financial Times, November 6)

Kate Wingfield, Lady Killer (Metro Weekly, November 6)

Lucrezia Borgia: Deep Space Nine (Out West Arts, November 6)

William Braun, Pretty Poison (Opera News, November 2008)

Greg Marzullo, Coming Full Circle (Washington Blade, October 31)
Fleming’s frequent collaborator, director John Pascoe, conceived a production painfully reminiscent of the Don Giovanni he staged last season in Washington. The setting was ostensibly the early 16th-century Italy of the real Lucrezia Borgia, but no self-respecting Italian lord would have had his palazzo built out of such ugly stone. The costumes were even less appropriate, with spiky hair, accordion sleeves, and black T-shirts making Gennaro and Orsini look like punk rock stars. Pascoe recently expressed his obsession with making opera sexy, boasting of how he previously convinced another tenor to sing a scene in Vivaldi’s Ercole su'l Termodonte nude (preserved for posterity on YouTube, of course). Just when it seemed that Pascoe would not add his accustomed kinky signature to Lucrezia, Orsini planted a kiss on Gennaro’s mouth in the third act.

Pascoe’s decision to have the two friends discover a shared homosexual love together was ultimately just silly, as they continued to make out in the party scene, before and during the brindisi. The director also made Fleming’s costumes more masculine with each passing act, so that she entered the final scene in doublet and full-length boots, with a sword at her side. Worse, Pascoe also decided to have Lucrezia slit her own throat with a dagger, as if singing an extravagant and ultimately unnecessary cabaletta and falling upon the son murdered by her own poison was not dramatic enough. And Donizetti and Romani thought they had troubles with the censors the way they wrote it.

Washington National Opera's production of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia will receive six more performances, some starring Renée Fleming (November 5, 9, and 11) and some starring Sondra Radvanovsky (November 7, 15, and 17). More about La Radvanovsky's Lucrezia next week!


Renée Fleming sings "Era desso il figlio mio"

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sad thing is that ten years ago, she didn't scoop and her voice was actually quite well suited to the role. Then fame bit her in the posterior and since then she's done for opera what Thomas Kinkade has done for painting.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for recognizing that the rough ensembles were partly (I would say mostly) due to Domingo's conducting. Midgette and Tommasini got this all wrong.