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Pick your poison

I think we’re all aware by now of the wicked libel that the French dramatist Victor Hugo concocted about the fair Lucrezia Borgia with his depiction of her as a murderous virago. History tells us she was merely a lovely pawn in the Machiavellian machinations of her family’s ambitions and most decidedly not the siren serial killer that Hugo’s play conjures.  Still, the story stuck and who could blame Gaetano Donizetti for rushing in and setting the blood-chilling tale for La Scala by the end of the very same year of the play’s premiere abetted by a libretto adapted by Felice Romani?  

Perhaps not as dramatically focused as her sisters, Lucia di Lammermoor or Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia still abounds in spirited arias and some provocative ensembles and duets. There’s no escaping the fact that the evening’s fate hangs mostly on the soprano assuming the mantle of the Borgia and herein lies an interesting tale. Apparently the celebrated Henriette Méric-Lalande, who sang the premiere, insisted on a spectacular cabaletta finale over the objections of the composer who preferred a more poignant tableau at the final curtain. She also was apparently blind to her own waning vocal resources at the time. Yet she made such a horrific fuss that the story goes that Donizetti granted her a solo so fiendish in its demands, including a gauntlet of trills in the final phrases, that she had to drastically simplify it just to drag her carcass over the finish line. She was not well received.

Callas never went near this part except to record the Act I serenade,”Com’è bello.” Montserrat Caballé made a big splash in this, her first bel canto role, subbing for Marilyn Horne at her 1965 New York debut, but then rarely touched it again save for an RCA recording and Milan in 1970. Dame Joan Sutherland is one of the few sopranos who seems to have actually enjoyed singing the part, starting in Vancouver in 1972, later in Rome, London, Sydney, and finally Barcelona in 1989.

Renée Fleming’s association with the poisonous Venetian vixen dates back to 1998 at La Scala where she weathered a heinous scandal involving booing from a pro-Callas cabal, a fainting conductor and world-wide press coverage. There’s a YouTube clip of the finale where you can hear the loggionisti taking exception to her ornamentation and (more justifiably) to a bobbled climactic high note.  I give her immense credit for getting back on that gondola two years later and offering the role in concert at Opera Orchestra of New York. Washington National Opera mounted this production in 2008, with a revival in San Francisco in 2011 featuring a gala cast, when it was filmed for movie theater release.

It’s a mostly excellent  performance starting with the propulsive conducting of Riccardo Frizza who helms the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus.  Donizetti’s pre-Verdian muscle is in full vigor here and the potions start bubbling during the brief prelude. He offers excellent and detailed support to his cast and follows them closely enough to allow them all to breath when they need to which is paramount.  He also keeps the choral set pieces moving forward, especially the Act I finale. The male chorus tends to skulk in the shadows when they’re up to no good and the San Franciscans do a marvelous job. The two hours playing time fairly flies thanks in part to these contributions.

Vitalij Kowaljow was my first Wotan here at the LA Opera Ring in 2010 and he was magnificent in a costume that literally hid all of his facial expressions.  I have since enjoyed his Fiesco in Boccanegra as well. As Duke Alfonso D’Este, Lucrezia’s vengeful husband, he has quite a bit of florid musi, making short work of his spirited opening aria, ‘Vieni, la mia vendetta” once he’s blown the cobwebs off. It’s a real black bass sound and he does glowering menace with aplomb.

Elizabeth DeShong shows immense promise in the role of Maffio Orsini and apparently she went on to enjoy a great success at Glyndebourne as Cenerentola last year. Her coltish mezzo has just the right gleam on the top and she has the florid technique to spare. She’s brilliant in her drinking song in the last act and plays perfect tomboy foil to our evening’s hero. It’s been a long time since we’ve enjoyed a strong, butch, mezzo and she’s a charming actor, albeit pint-sized, which makes her all the more endearing in this part.

By far the strongest performance of the evening comes from tenor Michael Fabiano as Lucrezia’s twice-doomed love child Gennaro. In his San Francisco debut he displays a marvelous voice with a clean bel canto line. More importantly it’s a plush, masculine, full lyric sound that doesn’t pinch at the top.  He and DeShong tear through their brotherhood duet in the last act with an exciting mix of muscular dexterity and tender attention. Thank goodness Anthony Tommasini is based in New York because I can just imagine his quivering ardour over Mr. Fabiano’s costumes, which are cut down to his pupik, revealing intensive manscaping. His last scene is pure “bella morte’ with some seriously exquisite mezza voce to accompany his very creditable fainting and swooning final arioso. He’s a great talent who deserves the highest praise.

Our evening’s anti-heroine is a little harder to peg. Fleming’s experience in the role is certainly evident. In the duets, both with Mr. Fabiano and Mr. Kowaljow, she’s fairly incendiary once she get’s into the moment. But she commences the duo with her husband in Act II not like she’s sustained the mortal insult of having her family name publicly defaced but rather more like she’s peevish over a bad blow out at the hairdresser’s. Once she starts working off either of these two strong singers suddenly she blossoms into a graduate of the Grace Bumbry School of Theatrical Hand Gestures. Left to her own devices in the Act I “Com’è bello” she’s more prosaic, dramatically rudderless during the long prelude. But it is a hell of a thing to warm up on.

Ms. Fleming wasn’t nicknamed “La Scoopenda” in these pages for nothing, and she does use portamento to excess at times to keep the top connected, not unlike some tenors do frankly. She’s not as adventurous with ornaments as she was 20 years ago but, then again, who of us is? She is fearless with the bottom third of the voice, which is rare with many a soprano, and especially welcome in this role. Her final aria doesn’t disappoint.

Director and designer John Pascoe and Ms. Fleming go all the way back to her first Maria Padilla for Opera Omaha in 1990 and although I enjoy his handsome production it’s more derivative of 16th century Venice than evocative. Almost all of it takes place in the low lights of dusk or evening and his unit set has enough detail and variation to never get boring. Creepy iron doors in the floor lead down to steamy dungeons and there’s a little whip play at the beginning of Scene II that’s very “Fifty Shades.” The reflection of water is almost always present in the background as well.

Mr. Pascoe’s costumes are another matter entirely.  They flirt with the 16th century and have the Rennaisance profile but incorporate “Star Wars” accents. Mr. Kowaljow is made up to look like the evil twin brother of the Michelin Man. Almost everyone is attired in reflective materials, which do look stunning in the dark, and with the Disneyland lighting plot of Jeffrey Bruckerhoff, which helps immensely. But it’s distracting that the proper fit of Mr. Fabiano’s trousers in the all-important crotch area is so badly botched.

Ms. Fleming models a series of faux couture ensembles of no particular era with matching phosphorescent wraps and a hairdo in the second scene that can only be labeled way too fly for a white chick. Garbed as a vengeful Amazon in the final scene, and handily tricked out with knee-pads, her suddenly short, punked out, soccer mom hairdo made me think that the mini-van was going to pull up behind her at any moment to whisk her off to the holiday costume party. Not bad enough to be ridiculous unless you put some actual thought into them but very creative and we’ve certainly seen worse.

Television direction by Frank Zamacona is generally excellent and he always captures the right moment on stage even if there are a few continuity moments that betray the cobbling together of more than one performance.

The picture and DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray I screened were excellent and there are cast interviews as well as a stunning time-lapse showing them taking down the Borgia set and putting up the Hockney Turandot.  If you’re a fan of La Renée, or this opera in general, I promise no disappointments.

24 comments

  • Bianca Castafiore says:

    pupik?????

  • bluecabochon says:

    “Pupik” is a delightful Yiddish word for bellybutton. :)

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

  • semira mide says:

    Lucrezia has indeed been maligned. Visit her tomb in Corpus Domi, a convent of cloistered nuns, in Ferrara ( where most of the opera is set) and you will realize the reverence with which her memory is treated. No snarky remarks tolerated here. Perhaps the nuns understand “women as pawns” better than the tourists.
    Walk past the d’Este castle and think of Sam Ramey singing about vengeance and uncovering the lagoon.. There is a sense of place about this opera and the city that can grow on you.

    Lucrezias? The few excerpts of Devia available on Youtube are the gold standard for me.

  • grimoaldo says:

    “spectacular cabaletta finale”

    On the other hand -
    “‘Lucrezia Borgia’ review: Dull performance by star”
    http://www.sfgate.com/performance/article/Lucrezia-Borgia-review-Dull-performance-by-star-2308194.php

    ” a lazy, theatrically vacuous performance in the title role… Fleming -- swanning about distractedly as if reprising her role of Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”…The only way this works is with a soprano able to use Donizetti’s extroverted vocal writing to convey both Lucrezia’s bloodthirsty fury and her carefully concealed tenderness for Gennaro. Fleming did neither…In “Com’è bello” she kept her eyes glued to the audience. At a key revelatory moment in Act 2, Fleming cried “Heavens,” as directed by the score, but reacting otherwise to something happening all the way on the other side of the stage was evidently too much trouble.”

    Didn’t see it or watch yt clips or listen to it, don’t want to, there were many comments along the lines of “God why in the world did they put on this boring stupid old opera”, just like when the Met did Faust with Popsy or Fille du Regiment with Nino M or, or… these operas with “I am an astounding freak of nature who is now going to dazzle you with my awesomeness” passages have to have such in them or they turn to boring trials of endurance.

    • CwbyLA says:

      How is Gruberova’s rendition part of the “spectacular” examples, I don’t understand? Hers is as mannered, if not worse, than Fleming’s.

      • grimoaldo says:

        I know she is a controversial singer and some people can’t stand her, but judging by the frenzied accolades of the audience after she has finished, they evidently seem to think they have witnessed something spectacular, rather than “yawn, how dull, what a silly old bore of an opera” which was a widespread reaction to SF’s show with Renee.

      • pobrediablo says:

        Her portrayals scream caricature.

    • FomalHaut says:

      What about Christine Weidinger? Her singing of the final aria is FEROCIOUS! Massive low notes and a ringing High Eb at the end?!

    • irontongue says:

      I saw one of the performances in this run, and Joshua Kosman’s review gets it exactly right. Here’s my own review.

  • Krunoslav says:

    It was Leyla Gencer ( Naples 1964) who brought this heroine back into the repertory.

    Devia beats the pallid Fleming hands down. I agree.

    • FomalHaut says:

      I was pretty sure I read somewhere the La Scala audience booed Fleming in reverence for Gencer, not Callas…

  • grimoaldo says:

    So I looked for the finale from the version under review-

    Yes it is dull, she can’t do the passage work any more, no high note at the end, years before she managed it much better but not here, if I paid money to see that I would be annoyed too, no wonder people left the theatre thinking “what a silly boring old opera”.

    • La Cieca says:

      This “no high note at the end” business needs to be addressed: interpolating an E-flat here is in questionable taste to begin with an is a fairly recent innovation: Caballe never sang an E-flat and neither did Gencer. A long-held B-flat is high and loud enough for me. (In fact, it was Fleming’s desire to sing a high E-flat in Borgia that got her in trouble at La Scala: everyone concerned thought it was bad taste and therefore evidence she hadn’t much grasp of bel canto.)

      I agree that Fleming skates over the notes here and doesn’t make much effect. And very different voices can make something very exciting of this cabaletta:

      • CwbyLA says:

        La Cieca, can you please explain this bad taste argument against ending bel canto operas with an e-fiat? I am asking this question out of genuine curiosity since I remember you saying that ending Anna Bolena with an e-flat was also in bad taste. For example, i find Beverly Sills’ e-flat at the end of Bolena appropriate and exciting, at least to my ears. I don’t think Callas or Netrebko’s endings were not appropriate at all. In fact, they are equally exciting.

        • La Cieca says:

          Well, the main argument is historical, i.e., so far as as a number of very eminent musicologists including Philip Gossett have been able to discover, the leap upwards to the loud, long tonic high note was simply not written during the period in which Lucrezia Borgia was composed, and doesn’t seem to have been an interpolation choice either, at least until about a generation later. So the leap up to the tonic note is at best an anachronism, i.e., more a reflection of late 19th/early 20th century performance practice.

          Further, I would call the upward leap in this particular context “bad taste” because I think this gesture connotes joy, strength or triumph. For example, when Abigaille interpolates a high C at the end of her cabaletta in Nabucco, that can be understood as an exultant shout of victory. Same idea with that most famous of all high C interpolations, Manrico’s in Il trovatore: he is resolute and aflame with courage as he dashes away to rescue his mother. Or, as for “joy,” Elvira’s giddy “Son vergin vezzosa,” with its roulades increasing in complexity throughout the piece, I think can appropriately be capped with a high D.

          The situation in Lucrezia Borgia is neither joyous nor triumphant. Her last words are “Sul mio capo il cielo avventa / Il suo strale punitor,,” i.e., “May the wrath of angry heaven fall upon my head.” As such, I think a downward ending in more in keeping with the mood, feverish but defeated.

          My other objection to the E-flat in the Borgia scene is that it is so much of an extension from the rest of the role which has for the most part stayed relatively low in middle voice. Lucrezia is a mature woman, not a songbird, and ideally the role should be cast with a soprano who makes a strong effect in middle voice. In general, sopranos who flaunt an easy high E-flat (especially at the end of a long and heavy role) don’t have the kind or rich middle voice that does justice to the actual written notes of the part.

          For the record, I don’t like the high E-flat in the Mad Scene from Lucia or the bogus flute cadenza that usually precedes it. I am willing to accept the last big E-flat at the end of the scene (if it is a really good one) because I realize that the public expects that note and will be disappointed if the singer doesn’t perform it. I still think it’s vulgar, but I admit that it’s probably unavoidable.

          • skoc211 says:

            There’s nothing vulgar about the E-flat at the end of “Spargi d’amaro pianto.” Of all the mad scenes that sopranos cap with high notes, it works best in “Lucia.” A ringing cry of desperation at the end of a life that has been hopelessly manipulated by the men around her!

            It’s not necessary, but it certainly isn’t vulgar.

          • CwbyLA says:

            Thanks for the explanation.

      • skoc211 says:

        Did Caballe *ever* sing an E-flat?

    • javier says:

      i attended one of the performances and i didn’t leave the theater thinking that.

      a lot of the reviews talk about how fleming failed to portray lucrezia and “bloodthirsty” and “furious” but for 90% of the opera lucrezia doesn’t portray any of those qualities. i think that fleming gets the role and she plays it just right. also, the finale is more about heartbreak than fury.

      fleming doesn’t sing the coloratura in the finale as well as she did over 10 years ago. she has modified it to a much softer version that i thinks is effective. her trills and runs are actually really excellent. compare fleming’s trills and runs to edita gruberova wobbling and gasping for air. is gruberova better than fleming because she squeezes out some kind of high note at the end and struts about the stage in a furious way that makes no sense according to the libretto?

  • skoc211 says:

    Any background on why “Callas never went near this part” other than the late recording of the one aria?

    • ardath_bey says:

      Callas was never offered a serious Lucrezia project. She could barely get to the operas she did get asked to sing, remember that she complained about her voice not being an “elevator”.

      An interesting essay by Will Crutchfield published by Opera News (“Dark Shadows”) lists all the passages from Lucrezia Borgia that ended up in Verdi, especially Rigoletto. It’s the most modern score from the 1830s and superior to anything in Italian opera until Ballo in Maschera some 25 years later.

    • javier says:

      it was probably never on her a radar. despite lucia and bolena callas didn’t sing much donizetti anyway. if you want to hear how callas could have sounded listen to lucia alberti or Vasso Papantoniou. both sopranos sound like callas clones to me.

      • skoc211 says:

        That’s an excellent point about Callas and Donizetti. I so identify her with Lucia and Bolena that I hadn’t really considered the fact that, other than those two roles and Paolina in “Poliuto,” she didn’t sing much Donizetti at all. Though I can still dream of what her Elisabetta in “Roberto Devereux” would have been like!