Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1868)
Lucrezia Borgia - melodrama in a Prologue and Two Acts (1833)
Lucrezia Borgia - Dimitra Theodossiou (soprano); Gennaro - Roberto De Biasio (tenor); Don Alfonso, Duke of Ferraro - Enrico Giuseppe Iori (bass); Mafio Orsini, a young nobleman - Nidia Palacios (mezzo); Astolfo, Mario Corna (bass); Gubetta, Giuseppe Di Paola (bass); Rustighello, Luigi Albani (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bergamo Music Festival/Tiziano Severini
rec. live, Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, Italy, 30 November, 2 December 2007
NAXOS 8.660257-58 [55.56 + 76.45]

I approached this review as if taking an examination. Why so after a thousand or so recordings and live performance reviews? Live performances, or at least DVD recordings in this instance, are the reason for my trepidation. In 2009 I reviewed a performance of Puccini’s La Rondine (see review) from the 2007 Puccini Festival at Torre del Lago, Italy. I allowed the well acted and sung performance of the heroine to turn my critical head. A respected colleague, whilst agreeing in part, was more realistic and pungent in his criticism of the overall production (see review). Worse, when the CDs of the performance were issued by Naxos other colleagues were scathing about aspects of the singing that I, distracted by the ‘goings-on’ on the stage had failed to stress sufficiently. This is germane to my situation now, having reviewed the DVD of the performance from which these CDs derive (see review) and which I summarised as a well sung performance of an opera from Donizetti’s golden period. So now I have to face up to the examination of that summary in respect of the sound only. 
As I noted, this Lucrezia Borgia was the inaugural production at the 2007 Bergamo Music Festival, held every autumn, and which used to be called the Donizetti Festival. Lucrezia Borgia had opened the Carnival Season at La Scala on 26 December 1833. Based on Victor Hugo, and with the benefit of Romani’s verses, it found favour with Milan’s audiences and was soon being produced elsewhere in Italy and abroad. The action of the story takes place in Venice and Ferrara in the early sixteenth century. Lucrezia’s husband, Duke Alfonso misunderstands her interest in the youth Gennaro and suspects an affaire. In reality, Gennaro is Lucrezia’s son, his identity known only to her. Alfonso orders the arrest of Gennaro on a charge of having insulted the Borgia family by defacing their family crest on the wall of the palace. Lucrezia arranges his escape. Later, at a banquet Lucrezia poisons a number of her enemies and is devastated to find that Gennaro is among their number. Gennaro refuses the antidote because the amount is not sufficient for all his companions as well. He is horrified when Lucrezia confesses she is his mother. Gennaro dies and the distraught Lucrezia follows suit.

Of the performance, I noted the presence of the formidable Dimitra Theodossiou in the eponymous role and suggested she was ably supported by good, but not international class, singers. As I noted in my review of the Roberto Devereux from the 2006 Festival (see review) whilst Theodossiou cannot claim the vocal elegance and floated pianissimos of Montserrat Caballé in this repertoire, and although she must be tired of comparisons with Callas, she does bring committed acting on a par with her Greek compatriot. She is justifiably considered the Norma de nos jours (see review) and features widely in Italy and elsewhere in the bel canto repertoire. She is at her best in this performance in Lucrezia’s dramatic confrontation with Don Alfonso, her husband, who has tricked her into demanding the death of Gennaro, unbeknown to him, her son. After taking him full on to the extent of reminding him that she has seen off three husbands, Lucrezia ends up pleading desperately for Gennaro’s life (Ch 2 Trs 3-4) as her husband, still convinced they are lovers, only offers her the choice of poison or the sword for the boy. In the DVD Dimitra Theodossiou’s skills as a dramatic vocal actress are consummate in this scene.

Theodossiou’s wide variety of tonal depth, colour and expression are also heard in the final moving cabaletta Era desso il figlio mio. Donizetti had added this for a revival at La Scala in 1840 (CD 2 Tr.21). In the contrasting lovely Tranquilla ei posaCome’ e bello! … Mentre geme of the prologue, as Lucrezia arrives in Venice and espies the sleeping Gennaro, her pianissimos at the start could have been steadier (CD 1 Trs.5-7). However the overall expressive portrayal is wholly credible. In sound alone Theodossiou justifies those comments and I would only be less generous in respect of unsteadiness and poor legato in that opening scene. She is no Caballé but her dramatic interpretation is as good as Callas might have made without the harsh tone and curdled notes that marred too many of the latter’s performances.

The only other female voice in Lucrezia Borgia is of Maffio Orsini, the young companion of Gennaro. A trousers role, it is sung by the mezzo Nidia Palacios. I noted her zany hairstyle, over-feminine appearance, and lack of low notes but failed sufficiently to stress her vibrato, certainly more intrusive in sound only (CD 1 Tr.3). I admired the singing and appearance of Roberto De Biasio as Gennaro as I had done in Maria Stuarda from the 2007 Sferisterio Opera Festival (see review) and as Edgardo in the 2006 Bergamo performance of Lucia di Lammermoor (see review). In sound only I catch more edge on his tenor and would hope for a touch more mellifluousness. His willingness to sing mezza voce continues to be welcome as is his ardent characterisation. As Lucrezia’s husband Alfonso, I continue to find the dark-toned bass, well-coloured and covered tone of Enrico Giuseppe Iori as fully realising the nature of Duke Alfonso’s implacable character. I am also more aware, in sound only, of his quick, but not too intrusive, vibrato. Of the other male voices the Rustighello of Luigi Albani is rather dry-toned.

The recording does vary in acoustic from time to time as characters move around the stage, more acceptable in video perhaps and certainly not as noticeable. As before, I am impressed by the conducting of Tiziano Severini and to which I would add the contribution of the chorus.

So how has my examination gone? Well, perhaps seven plus out of ten with a lenient examiner. Like the next time I go to a vocal competition I must beware the visual distraction of the glamorous soprano as I mark my card, and my wife likewise the handsome tenor. So it must also be in mind when assessing the singing in a staged performance of opera, whether live or on DVD.

Prospective purchasers of this issue might have it in mind that Sony are about to re-issue the former RCA 1966 recording featuring Montserrat Caballé and Alfredo Krauss with Shirley Verrett as Orsini and Ezio Flagello as Alfonso conducted by Jonel Perlea; formidable competition.

Robert J Farr