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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Lucrezia Borgia - Melodramma in a Prologue and two acts (1833)
Lucrezia Borgia - Renée Fleming (soprano); Gennaro, her son - Michael Fabiano (tenor); Don Alfonso, Duke of Ferraro - Vitalij Kowaljow (bass); Mafio Orsini, a young nobleman - Elisabeth DeShong (mezzo); Astolfo - Ryan Kuster (bass); Gubetta - Igor Veira (bass); Rustighello - Daniel Montenegro (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera/Riccardo Frizzi
Directed and Designed by John Pascoe
rec. live, San Francisco Opera, October 2011
Performed in the Critical Edition by Richard Parker
Video director: Frank Zamacona
Picture: 1080i Full HD - 16:9. Sound: PCM Stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English, German, French, Italian (original language), Chinese.
Booklet Notes: English, German, French
Also available on DVD
EUROARTS 2059644 Blu-ray [127:00 + 19:00 (bonus)] 

When I wrote about the re-issued 1966 audio recording of this opera (see review), I recounted how it launched the bel canto career of the then thirty-two year old Montserrat Caballé. She saved the night for Allen Sven Oxenberg’s American Opera Society by standing in at the last minute as the eponymous Lucrezia atperformance on 20 April 1965 at Carnegie Hall. Caballé became, overnight, an international bel canto sensation, joining Sutherland, Sills and Gencer as one of the queens of the genre. With this disc we have the flip side of that story. It was the live-recorded performance as the eponymous Armida at the Teatro Rossini, Pesaro, during the Rossini Festival in August 1993 that brought Renée Fleming to the notice of Opera Rara (see review). They subsequently cast her in the title role of their 1994 recording of Rosmondo D’Inghilterra and seemingly a new bel canto soprano was on the block. A contract with Decca perhaps influenced her in other directions and as I wrote at the time (see review) the history of recorded bel canto lost out. Fleming did not really venture into the genre in any big way again until she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera as Armida once more; this time in the 2010 US premiere of Rossini’s 1817 composition (see review). Meanwhile, the likes of Edita Gruberova whose modern dress filmed performance in a Munich production directed by Christof Loy (see review)andDimitra Theodossiou at the 2007 Bergamo Music Festival filled the vacuum (see review).
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, premiered, to great success in Paris earlier in the year. Its melodramatic story makes it an obvious basis for an opera. Donizetti’s opera found favour with Milan audiences and was soon 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 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 for all his companions. He is horrified when Lucrezia confesses she is his mother. Gennaro dies and the distraught Lucrezia follows suit.
The filming of this production and performance marks a new venture for San Francisco Opera. It is perhaps with that in mind that they cast Renée Fleming, who had been absent from the theatre for over a decade, in the eponymous role. At the time she was aged fifty-two and, as noted above, had not ventured into the bel canto genre, the Met Armida excepted, for some years. Whilst in an interview in the bonus content she talks about the style of bel canto, and the decoration of second verses and the like, it is only really in the finale as Lucrezia despairs at the consequence of the second poisoning and the imminence of her son’s death, that Fleming essays much (CH.21). Even then there are smudges in the runs and coloratura. She looks very glamorous with changes of gown and hair in the three parts whilst never really managing to portray the character of Lucrezia, even when her threatening words reminds her husband, who is refusing her pleas, that he is her fourth spouse (CH.13). In the role of Lucrezia’s implacable husband Alfonso, Vitalij Kowaljow is both appropriately forceful towards her in his acting whilst also sounding suitably savage at his perceived disgrace of the Borgia name by Gennaro’s defacing of the family name on the gate (CHs.9 and 12-14).
Gennaro and his friend Maffio Orsini, a travesti role, lead the young rebels from Venice. Both are impressive singers as well as actors, the latter aided by period costumes. The producer gives their relationship a somewhat dubious homosexual slant in the final act that is neither present nor intended in the libretto. This confusion extends to the English subtitles that refer to Orsini as her. Their costumed hairstyles are amazing when compared with the reality in their bonus interviews, but it is the quality of their sung and acted performances that stands out. Michael Fabiano’s plangent tenor is an ideal bel canto instrument with flexibility and strength. His costumed appearance as Gennaro, Lucrezia’s son, made me surprised at his looking more like a thirty-plus in the bonus. America has produced a line of light lyric coloratura tenors in recent years who have brought vocal and acted quality to this repertoire. Fabiano’s name can be added to that list and I shall follow his career with interest (CHs.6, 20). The same goes for Elizabeth DeShong as Orsini. Her voice is a full-toned wide-ranging mezzo to which she adds convincing acting skills. OK, she is a little squat of appearance, which may be a downside in the current propensity for updated productions. However, in period costume her acting and sung ability shines through (CHs. 2,18)).
The traditional staging and period costumes aid the historical perspective whilst the dark blue hue of the lighting hides any deficiencies. Simple atmosphere is aided by the likes of smoke rising from the dungeon. It is all over-simplistic, but far preferable to that in Christof Loy’s production featuring Edita Gruberova. The whole is aided by good singing from the lesser parts and the chorus. Riccardo Frizzi on the rostrum does justice to Donizetti’s melodies as well as the unfolding drama. The views of San Francisco’s famous bridge and theatre are a reminder that the Met is not the only American lyric theatre on the block. I hope future films from this source do not follow the larger theatre’s move to rather wacky innovative productions as exemplified by their 2013 Rigoletto and earlier La Sonnambula (see review). There is an adequate act-by-act synopsis but, at a mere twenty-one, the individual track contents are often over-long and could gainfully have been split.
Robert J Farr