Lucrezia Borgia, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2011

A mother’s anger leads unintentionally to the death of her adored illegitimate son. Shades of Verdi’s Rigoletto here, where a father’s anger leads to the death of his beloved daughter, but there are strong differences. Where Rigoletto is a physically ugly man with a hunchback, Lucrezia Borgia is a beautiful woman, now in her early forties. It’s a wonderful vehicle for a great soprano, but that’s not how it was played here.

Michael Fabiano as Gennaro, photos by Stephen Cummisky

The director, Mike Figgis has made a film about Lucrezia, and he imports several scenes from the movie into his staging of the opera. The purpose is to give some background from Lucrezia’s early life, which is not in the opera, but the effect was disorientating, like a Renaissance painting with several vanishing points. In fact we were also treated to projected images of paintings in which the figures started moving. This was supposed to give background to the background, but I felt myself in some avant garde Gesamtkunstwerk (mixed languages intended) that was attempting to educate me in the attitudes of the time.

The background to Lucrezia is that she was the daughter of a man who became pope, and the sister of a man who was a psychopath. Both supposedly had incestuous relations with her and she, like a true Borgia, took a delight in causing the death of others. At least that is what the movie showed, but where does this leave the opera?

Alastair Miles and Claire Rutter as Alfonso and Lucrezia

The part of Gennaro, Lucrezia’s lost son, whom she seeks out in the Prologue, was strongly portrayed and sung by Michael Fabiano, and his friend Orsini was beautifully sung by Elizabeth DeShong. Lucrezia’s third husband Alfonso was well sung, though rather woodenly portrayed, by Alastair Miles, and much though I have admired Claire Rutter in other roles, I found her a disappointing Lucrezia who avoided the high notes at the end. As for Lucrezia’s father and brother, who are so prominent in the movie sequences, they are simply not in the opera.

Costume designs of the period by Brigitte Reiffenstuel were excellent, and the sets by Es Devlin were wonderful. I loved the dual throne in Act I, which reappeared in Act II, and I thought the small proscenium arch in Act II, which widened later, showing a stage within the stage, was a clever idea. Lighting by Peter Mumford was very well done, giving a sense of irreality at appropriate moments. Conducting by Paul Daniel lacked a sense of drive, partly perhaps because of the various interruptions for the movie sequences.

The chorus in black cloaks, acting like a Greek chorus, formed a strong background to the drama, reminiscent of the chorus in Rigoletto. That opera is almost always a success, and it would be good to counterbalance it occasionally with Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, but apart from clever production ideas one needs a very strong soprano, and the music must be played for all it’s worth rather than used as a background, which is what happens in movies.

Performances continue until March 3rd — for more details click here.

2 Responses to “Lucrezia Borgia, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2011”

  1. Franco Bonelli says:

    Ms Rutter did not ‘avoid’ the high notes at the end! You have obviously not heard her enough to realise she sings these ultra-high notes with ease. If you heard her Aida you would have heard 10 performances of E flats above top C at the end of the Triumphal Scene during the 2nd runs of ENO’s Aida, allowed by Gerard Korsten. She was banned by Ed Gardner from doing them during the 1st run. She sang 10 in Sydney with E flats – please check other blogs. You will have heard E flats at the end of every Traviata Act 1, etc. What people don’t realise is that it is NOT always the singer’s choice, but that of the conductor, and woe betide a singer who ignores the conductor’s wishes, who would make their life hell if they went against them, even in a bel canto piece. So, do not be so hasty or ignorant to assume a singer simply cannot sing these unwritten high notes. I have just heard an extraordinary recording of Miss Rutter singing Ernani with the most stunning top F at the end of the cabaletta! I don’t think even Sutherland would have attempted that!
    Miss Rutter’s is an unusual voice because not only is it high but also has dark dramatic colours. I cannot think of another soprano today who possesses these qualities, and I think we should be grateful she’s singing so much in the UK! Let’s hope Miss Rutter has a more sympathetic conductor next time who understands the singer’s wishes. Ciao, Franco.

    • markronan says:

      That’s very helpful, Franco, and many thanks for pointing this out. I didn’t claim she couldn’t sing those high notes at the end, but I did wonder why she avoided them and you have explained it wasn’t her choice but the conductor’s. From the audience’s point of view it’s not possible to know the reason, so a bit of additional information like this is very welcome indeed.
      It’s worth adding that I attended the first night, and I understand from a friend who was also there, that Claire Rutter’s performance in the later TV relay was far better than the one on the first night. I agree, she’s a wonderful singer — I’ve seen her in other things and she has been terrific.

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