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SEEN AND HEARD UK OPERA REVIEW
(sung in English). Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of
English National Opera/Paul Daniel. London Coliseum
Lucrezia Borgia - Claire Rutter
Gennaro - Michael Fabiano
Alfonso d’Este - Alastair Miles
Maffio Orsini - Elizabeth DeShong
Livoretto - Tyler Clarke
Vitellozzo - Johnathan Stoughton
Petrucci - Gerard Collett
Gazella - James Gower
Rustighello - Richard Roberts
Gubetta - Matthew Hargreaves
A Voice - Michael Burke
Director - Mike Figgis
Set Designer - Es Devlin
Costume Designer - Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designer - Peter Mumford
Translation - Paul Daniel
English National Opera is doing sterling work for the cause of Donizetti. Jim Pritchard reported on The Elixir of Love in 2010, while I wrote on Lucia de Lammermoor in 2010 and 2009. The 2009 Lucia was conducted by Paul Daniel, whose conducting on that occasion impressed, as it did, mostly, for the present Borgia. The orchestra was tight and focussed, and Daniel’s tempi were well-chosen. He accompanied his singers with great sensitivity, while on a larger scale giving the ongoing drama both direction and momentum. An off-stage band was perfectly integrated into the on-stage action.
The unconventional met the conventional in Mike Figgis’ new production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. The goings-on on stage were pretty conventional - but the second the screen dropped from above to portray events around and prior to the action of the opera itself, anything went, and often what went were clothes. Figgis is known for Leaving Las Vegas and Internal Affairs, although he has a background in theatre, music and the visual arts. The evening begins with a film, an introduction to the Borgia dynasty: Pope Alexander VI (Lucrezia’s father), Cesare (her brother) and Lucrezia herself (as a teenager). Figgis himself has referred to this film as a sort of “Meet the Borgias”. The film also follows the courtesans’ preparations for a bacchanalian Borgia orgy, just so we see what sort of dysfunctional family we’re dealing with here.
There are three more films inserted into Donizetti’s ongoing score. The second, “Calderon”, occurs between the Prologue and Act 1 Scene 1 and centres on Cesare’s obsession with Lucrezia; the third is immediately post-interval and shows Lucrezia about to marry her third husband – she needs to prove her virgin status, however, and this despite being three months pregnant. Finally, the fourth film is a “recreation of two famous paintings of the period”. It is all done with an expert eye and each film grips in its own way. Figgis’ intent was to give “the opera some historical context and also function as the memory of the central character of the opera, Lucrezia Borgia”. As such he succeeds, often beautifully. Indeed, it is the beauty of the film-making that survives in the memory, rather than any more controversial aspects.
Figgis’ way with the stage itself, too, is remarkable, made reality through Es Devlin’s sets and Peter Mumford’s lighting. At one point, a red carpet, lit to make the red as lurid as possible, almost blinds the eye and looks like a great, bloody gash in the stage. The deliberate darkness that surrounds characters seems to reflect the darkness of the characters and the story itself.
After the first film, therefore, the opera’s Prologue (set a quarter of a century later) might seem rather tame, given the musical vocabulary at Donizetti’s disposal. But once the eyes and ears adjusted, one became aware of the lovely, light soprano of Claire Rutter. Throughout, Rutter was most impressive vocally, tackling Donizetti’s demanding writing with real agility (she also has the ability to deliver a near-perfect trill). Rutter really came into her own in the final stages of the opera, when everything comes into focus, plot-wise, and tragedy rears its head as her son Gennaro (taken from her at birth) dies in her arms. The part of Gennaro was sung with aplomb and verve by Michael Fabiano, a young singer with a notable future ahead of him. Some bleatiness to his voice was noticeable later in the opera, possibly due to nerves and this could be ironed out later in the run. Fabiano has stage presence, though. Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong was making her ENO debut here as Maffio Orsini and did so in remarkably confident style.
Great to see and hear the wonderful bass of Alastair Miles, an ENO favourite, here in the part of Alfonso d’Este, still magnificently resonant of voice and with wonderful stage presence born of huge experience. The smaller parts were all more than adequately taken. The chorus, dressed in black acted as a sort of Greek Chorus, or, as in Act 1, a great, black accusing mass. It was a most effective technique, for the chorus gained real dramatic strength in this way.
Whether the contrast between the films and the generally conventional staging (with its fair share of stand and deliver arias) was successful has divided critical opinion. Personally, I found the opposition between the two remarkably stimulating, with the visuals adding to rather than detracting from Donizetti’s score. This is not an easy night at the opera, but it is a rewarding one.
This is also the first collaboration between ENO and Sky 3D. On February 23rd, the first live opera in 3D will be broadcast as a “quadcast” (live on Sky Arts 2, Sky 3D and into selected cinemas in 3D around the UK alongside a behind the scenes channel controlled by Mike Figgis himself). Groundbreaking stuff, to be sure.
I remain unsure of the translation (by Paul Daniel himself). Rhymes are often forced (sometimes almost laughably so)