By Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto by Felice Romani (after a play by Victor Hugo)
San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House
Conducted by Riccardo Frizza
Designed and directed by John Pascoe
Sept. 23-Oct. 11, 2011
Donizetti’s portrait of one of history’s most celebrated bad girls is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, his Lucrezia Borgia is a cold-hearted, vengeful murderess; on the other, a tender, loving mother. She is a powerful woman, but also a victim of the men in her life. Most significantly for our purposes, the opera “Lucrezia Borgia” offers the listener a ridiculous melodrama of a story, wrapped up in some of the loveliest music in the repertoire.
For the story we can blame Victor Hugo, from whose play librettist Felice Romani took the plot. Indeed, the historical Lucrezia was famed for her poisonous recipes. The daughter of a not-so-celibate pope and sister to the power-mad Cesare Borgia, she was a much-married (and widowed) pawn in the Italian Renaissance game of thrones. Very beautiful (portraits exist), she may have been sexually abused by her brothers (and maybe her father as well) and a child might have resulted from one of these incestuous unions. Or not. Much is historical surmise but her bad rep has followed her down through the ages. This 1833 opera revolves around her relationship with her 20-year-old soldier son, Gennaro, and the jealous revenge cooked up by her cruel now-husband, the Duke of Ferrara.
For the music we can thank Donizetti, one of the great masters of the bel canto style. Bel canto literally means “beautiful singing” and this opera, like the master’s more famous “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “Don Pasquale” abounds in that. And San Francisco’s production boasts a cast of supremely capable singers, headed by America’s reigning diva, Renée Fleming, in the title role. As riveting as Fleming’s Lucrezia is, her men more than hold up their end. Michael Fabiano’s Gennaro is nothing short of amazing. This is a tenor to watch. And basso Vitalij Kowaljow’s Duke Alfonso is powerful, commanding and beautifully sung. Elizabeth DeShong rounds out the cast in the “pants role” of Maffio Orsini, Gennaro’s lover and comrade-in-arms and she too has a fine command of the bel canto style. (Directed by John Pascoe, who originally mounted this production for Washington National Opera, the romantic attachment of the two “men” may have been heated up a bit for San Francisco; it’s pretty steamy).
The San Francisco Opera Chorus, directed by Ian Robertson, did its bit, especially in the several rousing male choruses. Riccardo Frizza conducted and the sets, by Pascoe, were imposing, all Renaissance towers, monuments and ornate palazzo gates. All in all, it was a delightful evening of opera with one quibble. Two 25-minute intermissions added nearly an hour to the running time. Perhaps this was necessary to move those massive set pieces around (actually, one tower was so big it was sitting outside of the opera house a week before the “Lucrezia” opening and patrons on their way to “Turandot” were treated to a preview) and I’m sure the concession stands did well, but, generally, it was a disservice to the audience.