Two operas both alike in dignity, set in dimly lit Renaissance towns ruled by seething, conspiratorial courts. Parties blaze, alleyway shadows threaten, half the characters are spies or bravos for the other half, plus a few on spec. Love is in short supply, usually twisted. What these folks need is a competent social worker with a dagger-proof vest and a cast-iron stomach. What they get is melody to live upon and die upon, melody as rich and various as the forms of pasta.  

This summer, Will Crutchfield’s annual Bel Canto program at the Caramoor estate in Katonah, New York, focused on the relationships between two of Victor Hugo’s musical grandchildren, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia (1833, rev. 1840) and Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851). For those of us aware of such lovely but less familiar Hugo-derived scores as Pacini’s Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra, Mercadante’s Il Giuramento, Cui’s Angelo, Ponchielli’s Marion Delorme, Marchetti’s Ruy Blas and Gomes’s Maria Tudor, this was a somewhat disappointing selection.

But Crutchfield had a point to make. He feels that Verdi was Donizetti’s successor as the most incisive composer of dramatic melody on the lyric stage, and that Verdi consciously followed that congenial route rather than the models of Rossini or Bellini. Rigoletto, the crown of Verdi’s early period, may derive many of its effects from close study of Lucrezia Borgia, both its lurid virtues and its imperfections.

Hugo’s plays, in his early, sensational era, focused on the conflict between garish, guignol characters, often royal, whose guilty secrets were often sincere (often parental) emotions. If the royals of history were insufficiently monstrous, Hugo unhesitatingly invented lovers, victims and incestuosities to spice things up. The newly-empowered bourgeois Parisian audiences gobbled these soufflés with relish. (Hugo was not alone: Dumas and Scribe, among others, kept pace.) Opera composers, though they had to be warier of censorship, pounced upon these plots as well.

It is only chivalrous to point out that the real Lucrezia Borgia never murdered anyone; none of her husbands died of poison and two of them lived to remarry. Those stories ‘bout the way she lost her bloomers? Rumors! In Hugo and in Donizetti, however, she is a fiend, but a fiend with a warm maternal instinct, a turn of the emotional screw that, set to music, calls for a distinctive palette of melodic color and a diva who can change the atmosphere on a dime.

Rigoletto is a flawless masterpiece, a mainstay of the repertory since the day it premiered in 1851—I felt no need to revisit it at Caramoor. Lucrezia, which shares so many of its tropes, is one of Donizetti’s most successful serious operas, but no one would call it flawless. It takes work, and it depends upon the prima donna to do that work.

In Rigoletto, we feel we know Sparafucile after three lines—indeed the menace of the accompaniment singles him out, creates him for us, whereas the many spies in Lucrezia and Gennaro’s indistinguishable buddies (aside from the betrousered mezzo Maffio) are never individual or human. Too, though the warmth Lucrezia and Gennaro feel for each other is sincere, he never makes the connection between the unknown mother he invokes and the mysterious older woman he never quite trusts. Is his attraction to her sexual? No; that would be creepy. Then what is it? Gennaro’s behavior is not based on his personality (he has none—Romani and Donizetti have not supplied one); he is based on the requirements of melodrama, and the melodrama belongs to Lucrezia.

Lucrezia has had lousy luck with New York’s two principal opera companies—it does not succeed as a tenor vehicle, even for Caruso at the Met in 1904 (withdrawn after one performance); too, you need a healthier soprano to put over the long-breathed Bellinian melodies than Sills was in 1976, when she sang it as almost her last role for the City Opera. The piece packs houses elsewhere. It was the occasion of Montserrat Caballé’s abrupt ascent to world fame at Carnegie Hall in 1965; it has been a topper for Gencer, Sutherland, Devia and Gruberova, but Fleming found it an awkward fit at La Scala and had to pull out. The soprano must carry this show; it will not carry the soprano.

Angela Meade  has sung Norma, Semiramide and Duchess Hélène at Caramoor with credit, each of them a tougher sing than Lucrezia, which should have been a knockover for her. The extended A-flat in the Prologue finale, the one Lucrezia must hold during a statement of the theme by everyone else on stage, was a thing of great beauty, admirably sustained, but you had to strain a bit to hear it. Her “Com’é bello” was very pretty, but she omitted the second verse.

Meade can sing many deep and beautiful phrases in the middle of her voice and possesses an enviable fil de voix above the staff. If she could figure out a way to join these two things with the evenness that bel canto prized, she’d be a major artist. But on her way from dark chest voice to the floating phrases in alt, many notes are hollow, a surface sound as if eroding waves had gutted the tone, and these unattractive sounds are often off pitch as well. Her Lucrezia was assured but imperfect.

The entire cast looked good and sounded less than met the eye. Michele Angelini, the Gennaro, boasts a pleasant light tenor but on July 18, he was dogged by phlegms all evening, and often broke the line into individual notes and syllables where a flowing sound is called for. Tamara Mumford, as Maffio Orsini, sang some winning phrases, especially in her lowest range—was that a plummy E that bowled us over in the brindisi? But there was nothing the least bit masculine about her portrayal—she might have been The Other Woman.

Christophoros Stamboglis looks a Mafia thug of grim and cold aspect, which is perfect for Duke Alfonso, but his sizable voice seemed more baritone than bass, easy and ringing on top but missing a note or two at the bottom. All these singers had a way of adding elegant but very tiny ornaments to the line, as if tossing them off to themselves (or aside to Maestro Crutchfield) as afterthoughts rather than hurling their talent out before the world with any assurance. Opera is theater: Show it off, don’t keep it to yourself. Among the many (many) spies, confidantes and comrades, baritone Zachary Altman and tenor Cameron Schutza gave pleasure and remained in character.

Two or three variant versions of Lucrezia Borgia exist, derived from the exigencies of different singers on different occasions. At the 1833 premiere at La Scala, the story goes, Henriette Méric-Lalande, singing the first verse of her exquisite cavatina, “Com’é bello, quale incanto” while masked, feared the audience would not realize she was the evening’s prima donna. She demanded a cabaletta to follow, and Donizetti responded (unwillingly) with “Ci vogli il prima a cogliere,” one of his weakest. She wanted another cabaletta to conclude the opera, “Era desso il figlio mio,” (He was my son!, sung over the tenor’s corpse), which is not a “pretty” thing at all—the situation hardly merits pretty—but the rage of a woman without hope, not unlike Elisabetta’s final aria in Roberto Devereux or the vindictive conclusion of Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, which had opened at the same opera house earlier the same year (with the same librettist, Romani).

For Paris in 1840, Donizetti concocted a revised version in which both cabalettas were dropped, the opera now ending with more classical restraint: a tragic duet for the mother and her dying son. (There also exists a dying cabaletta for Gennaro, purchased from the composer by the Russian tenor, Ivanov, which sometimes turns up in modern performances.)

For the two Caramoor performances this month, Meade omitted the “Ci vogli” on July 12, then restored it (sadly, omitting “Mentre geme il cor sommesso,” the second verse of the divine “Com’é bello”) on July 18, extending the piece into a lengthy cadenza with lengthy staccato repetitions. No one present doubted who the prima donna was. She sang “Era desso il mio figlio” on July 12 and omitted it on the eighteenth—but a rumor spread through the audience that she would offer it as an encore if we applauded loudly enough. Naturally we did, and she did, and she sold it. Ah, tradition!

Photo: Gabe Palacio