Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Opera 101—That Girl Is Poison

Miss her… kiss her… love her… wrong move you’re dead

This week I saw my first opera of the season, Lucrezia Borgia, a lesser-known work by bel canto master Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). Donizetti was incredibly prolific, composing seventy operas, including Lucia di Lammermoor and L’Elisir d’amore, which both aired on KQED earlier this month.

A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia by John Collier

The plot of the opera is fairly simple, revolving around the historical personage of Lucrezia Borgia, she of the powerful Renaissance clan, written about most famously in Machiavelli’s Il Principe. Although historical evidence is scant, rumors surround this notorious woman, including allegations of incest, poisoning, and murder. In the opera, the climactic scene involves a mass poisoning of rivals accused of insulting her family name. Although very different stylistically, I found myself reminded of Cheek by Jowl’s excellent Duchess of Malfi at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the mid-1990s.

Renée Fleming in Lucrezia Borgia. Photo by Karin Cooper.

Like Cyrano de Bergerac for Plácido Domingo last year, more than anything, Lucrezia Borgia is a vehicle piece for Renée Fleming. That said, I enjoyed the opera itself far more than I expected. There were a number of pleasant duets and trios and the main cast was quite strong. Although Fleming was suitably impressive, I was more struck by the tenor, Michael Fabiano, as Borgia’s long-lost illegitimate son Gennaro, and the bass, Vitalij Kowaljow, as Borgia’s husband, Don Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. I was not entirely convinced by the trouser role* of Orsini, Gennaro’s close friend, especially the directorial choice of emphasizing the homoerotic nature of the Gennaro-Orsini relationship, which becomes muddled when the male role of Orsini is sung by a woman.

The set reflected the simplicity of the storyline and worked quite well. The costumes, especially for the early scenes, could have been more vibrant, although they worked fine with the somber nature of the story. However, Gennaro’s outfits were hideous and made him look like some sort of second-rate Christophe Lambert in an early 80s French space adventure. In the final scenes, his costume was particularly distracting and just didn’t seem to go with the rest of the production. There was also one odd moment when a nameless woman was thrown into a prison pit with no real explanation whatsoever.

Renée Fleming and Michael Fabiano. Photo by Cory Weaver.

But, overall, it was a great start to the season, if not the mega-watt star turn that I was anticipating going into the evening. I would definitely recommend checking it out if you can.

Lucrezia Borgia is playing through October 11 at the War Memorial Opera House.

[On a side note, we decided to splurge on dinner at Jardinière beforehand. It actually turned out to be less of a splurge than we thought as Monday nights offer an incredible three-course tasting menu, including wine pairings, all for $45. Every Monday menu has a different theme, with this week’s being the celebration of Chez Panisse’s fortieth anniversary. I particularly enjoyed the starter of grilled Mediterranean octopus, although I was also very pleased to see my favorite dessert, clafoutis, on the menu.]

*In 17th- and 18th-century Italian opera, boys and young men were often played by castrati. Today, these roles are usually played by mezzo-sopranos dressed as men.


la maratonista (AKA Jenni) said...

Ha! I love your description of Gennaro's costumes. They were soooo bad.

Great recap, but you forgot to mention the new friends you made!

Sylvie said...

Too true. Here's a shout-out to the Jewish couple from L.A. who made me go home and check the schedule for the Santa Fe opera.