Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Lucrezia Borgia - Melodramma in a Prologue and Two Acts (1833)
Lucrezia Borgia - Edita Gruberova (soprano); Gennaro, her son - Pavol Breslik (tenor); Don Alfonso, Duke of Ferraro – Franco Vassallo (bass); Mafio Orsini, a young nobleman - Alice Coote (mezzo); Astolfo, Christian van Horn (bass); Gubetta, Steven Humes (bass); Rustighello, Emanuele d’Aguanno (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera, Munich/Bertrand de Billy
Director: Christof Loy
Set Designer: Henrik Ahr
Costume Designer: Barbara Drosihn
Video director: Brian Large
rec. live, National Theatre, Munich. 1 March, 6 July 2009
Picture format: BD: 1080i Full HD - 16:9
Sound formats: BD: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1; DTS HD Master Audio
Subtitles: English, German, French, Italian (original language)
Booklet Notes: English, German, French EUROARTS BLU-RAY 2072454 [133:00 + 54:00 (bonus)]
Lucrezia Borgia opened the Carnival Season at La Scala on 26 December 1833. The libretto by Romani, the foremost librettist of the day, is based the plot of Victor Hugo’s Lucrece Borgia, itself premiered, to great success in Paris earlier in the year. The melodramatic storyline makes it an obvious basis for an opera. Donizetti’s opera also found favour with Milan audiences and was soon produced elsewhere in Italy and abroad.
The action takes place in Venice and Ferrara in the early sixteenth century. Lucrezia’s husband, Duke Alfonso, misunderstands his wife’s interest in the youth Gennaro, suspecting an affair. 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 his 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 also sufficient to save all his companions. He is horrified when Lucrezia confesses she is his mother. Gennaro dies and the distraught Lucrezia follows suit.
In my review of the then recently re-issued 1966 recording of this opera (see review), I recounted how the thirty-two year old Montserrat Caballé saved the night for Allen Sven Oxenberg’s American Opera Society by standing in at the last minute as Lucrezia for performance on 20 April 1965 at Carnegie Hall. With all the tickets sold, and only weeks to go, the scheduled Marilyn Horne hit problems with her pregnancy and withdrew. Caballé was thirty-two years old and overnight became an international bel canto sensation joining Sutherland, Sills and Gencer as one of the queens of the genre. In Vienna in 1972, singing the Queen of the Night from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Edita Gruberova (b. 1946), could be deemed to have joined that illustrious club. Since that time she has sung many of the great bel canto heroines including, Donizetti’s ‘Tudor Queen Trilogy’, Lucia and Linda di Chamounix, Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda and Norma, and on to Verdi’s Gilda as well as Costanza in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, many recorded on the Nightingale label. However, she waited until 2002, then aged fifty-six, before first undertaking Norma and another five years before Lucrezia Borgia. By then she was in her sixty-first year. It could be considered apt that as the mother of the revolutionary young hot-blooded Gennaro, looking that age might be appropriate. Certainly, in this up-dated production, recorded in Vienna in 2009, whether in gown or trouser suit she looks her age, crows feet all too evident in Brian Large’s none-too-kind close-ups. The worst news is that she sounds that age too. Gone is the vocal security in those bel canto highs that were her hallmark; here they far too often end with something approaching a shriek and are preceded by raw notes as in the opening Com' è bello (CH.5). She is afflicted with the same problem in the act one scene as she haggles with Alfonso over the fate of Gennaro (CHs.18-21) and on the concluding note of the work (CH.38).
Vocal failing can be less obvious if the production is vivid and the singer is a convincing actress as evidenced by Natalie Dessay in her recent recording of Verdi’s La Traviata (review to be published). That also requires a staging that permits such skills to be in evidence. This production, in ultra-minimalist and simplistic sets by Henrik Ahr, is a typical Christof Loy effort. Strange updated costume quirks, such as the youths in the prologue with their trousers rolled up to half mast, and minimal props, chairs being the favourite, are typical hallmarks. Add a backcloth with the name Lucrezia Borgia emblazoned, and minus a vandalised B from act one onwards, is what Alfonso finds all that is necessary to condemn Gennaro to death despite his wife’s pleadings. Having all modern clothes, including Lucrezia’s long blond wig in the last two acts, costume designer, Barbara Drosihn muddies the water by having chorus members in period costume for part of act two.
The rest of the singing is mainly good. As Alfonso, Franco Vassallo sings strongly if with a slightly throaty tone (CH.12). Alice Coote as Mafio Orsini looks very mannish and sings with good tone and acts the role well. Unaccountably, in the subtitle translation Orsini is referred to as ‘she’, it is in fact a travesti part. The minor roles of Rustighello, Astolfo and Gubetta, are all adequately sung. However, the major vocal honours of the evening belong to Pavol Breslik as Gennaro. He sings with excellent diction, variety of tone and good characterisation whilst acting with conviction despite being unnecessarily facially bloodied for the entire last act.
If the production and staging lacks cohesion and conviction, thankfully those convictions are present in the pit under the direction of Bertrand de Billy.
The booklet has full track-listings with timings and an essay about the opera and genesis of the production, the latter in English, German and French. The fifty-four minute bonus is a somewhat eulogistic film about Gruberova from her early days in her native country and her rise to stardom. This includes brief clips of her as the Queen of the Night, complete with the famous high B, Violetta and Norma among other roles. My Blu-Ray copy was deficient, or refused to load, detail of Chapter numbers, timings and total time during play-back.
Enthusiasts for better all-round performances of this great bel canto work on DVD/Blu-Ray should try the Naxos issue from the Bergamo Festival in 2007 with Dimitra Theodossiou in the title role. Whilst not perfect, at least the sets and costumes are sensible and the then new production used the revision by Roger Parker (see review).
Robert J Farr
Gruberova left her assumption of Lucrezia much too late in her career.