Cher Public

Pretty poison

It could get loud. It often does, especially when the soprano is mere inches from your ears, pleading with the duke for the life of the poor boy (parentage unknown) who insulted her notorious dynasty. Soprano Joanna Parisi, as Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, is over the top and out of control.

Parisi tosses heavy furniture every which way in her fits of temper (into the audience sometimes—be warned!). She poisons too many people to fit in the five coffins mentioned in the libretto and hurls goblets of her “special” at Don Alfonso. At one point, dashing down an aisle in perilously spiked heels and a taut chemise, she handed a highball of homebrew to this critic. Knowing the plot and wary of the lady, I took care not to sip.

Over the top and out of control—except vocally, where Parisi’s control was impressive and gratifying. Her voice was sometimes loud but never unattractive, and she phrased the languid “Com’e bello” with delicate line and pretty little ornaments, though an imperfect trill. She has the evenness of register, all one voice from top to bottom, that was much prized in the bel canto era and seems rare of late. Withal, she is slim, pretty and an effective actress, though she tends to overwork the Mae West hand on hip, tossing curls, peel-me-a-deadly-nightshade act. She will hold the castello through next Saturday in the delectable LoftOpera production of Lucrezia Borgia at LightSpace Studios in Bushwick. (L train to Morgan Avenue, twenty minutes from Greenwich Village.)

Donizetti’s operas are clockwork machines devised in explosive melody: Wind them up and they go off right on schedule, lighting up the stage. All you have to supply to wind them is the singers—but just one won’t achieve it. That’s the mistake the Met made when Caruso sang in their one and only performance of Lucrezia back in whenever that was. Good Donizetti requires two or three top soloists. Lucrezia has four big roles, and LoftOpera, incredibly, has four excellent leads to sing them, and an impressive array of backup for the opera’s spies, confidantes and poisoned bystanders.

Lucrezia is much better than average Donizetti, and average Donizetti is still pretty good. The man knew how to turn a bloody gothic fantasy from Victor Hugo into what-will-happen-next thriller, although you know perfectly well what will happen in misogynistic horror-fantasy: She’ll go right on killing till she runs out of victims. But is there a more atmospheric opening in opera than the blaze of Venetian light undercut by murky drum-and-brass? Is there a more gorgeous, Bellinian cavatina in Donizetti than Lucrezia’s “Com’e bello”? Is there a more tense finaletto in opera than the accusations that conclude the prologue? Is there a more thrilling scene á trois even in Verdi than Act I, scene 2 of Lucrezia—from which Verdi learned so much? And then, in Act II, there’s the laughing brindisi and its gruesome sequel. Corpses everywhere, and Lucrezia is sorry—and we’re sorry for her. He was her son! (Some giggling, but not much.)

Laine Rettmer’s staging transfers the story from Renaissance Ferrara to contemporary Mafia-land. That’s a staging cliché, yes, but it suits this particular opera better than most. These people are tyrants, thug mercenaries, spies and counterspies. Violence, murderous or merely sexual, is the undertone of every relationship—except that of Lucrezia and Gennaro, which is doomed. Don Alfonso is turned into, well, Don Alfonso—Matthew Anchel, a Gandolfini-esque figure with a suave, room-filling bass, lacked only a proper snarl to be ideal.

Mercifully, such Mafia opera-staging sub-clichés as switchblade knives drawn as singers threaten with their “swords” are not among Ms. Rettmer’s whims. She’d rather toss the furniture or set off clouds of incense to simulate Venetian fog. Freed of the censors of 1833 and the “ew” factor that once inhibited opera audiences, Rettmer has placed Lucrezia in a see-through dress that would appall Carmela Soprano and has permitted Gennaro to be inspired by lust in their first chatty encounter. The singers are game, but Donizetti’s music delicately sidesteps the issues Rettmer seems determined to raise. I’m not sure raising them adds to the drama’s fabric.

The staging is well-served by the snazzy costumes of Rachel Dainer-Best, who puts men in eye-popping suitings and women in whorish banglery. That fits the devil-take-the-hindmost gangster milieu, perhaps, but Ms. Parisi’s heels are a few inches too high for safety, even if she does sing well in them.

Melissa Collom sings Gennaro’s bosom pal, Maffio—a trouser role that has become a woman in skirts, which makes her an odd battlefield companion and turns their buddy duet in an erotic direction. Collom produced many gorgeous phrases in both mezzo and contralto ranges, and the famous Brindisi gave her no trouble, but her intonation was not always ideal. It’s a very beautiful, womanly voice, but I wonder if she can continue to handle so broad a territory.

Gennaro is sung by Nikhil Navkal, slim, handsome and curly-headed, with an exciting full-bodied tenor, plangent and endearing in the prologue, gruffer when confusion, torture and a snoot-full of arsenic turn him bitter. The part’s very highest notes may be a stretch for him, but he produces an enjoyable “ping” and lyricism of a highly promising order. Among the minor roles, all effectively cast, tenor Michael Kuhn distinguished himself with many agreeable phrases as Alfonso’s factotum, Rustighello.

Considering the rather awkward shape of LightSpace, the four separate clumps of audience (most of them, be warned, on backless benches) and the requirements the action made on the singers’ attention, conductor Sean Kelly had his work cut out, supporting them and following their rhythms while maintaining the momentum of a very direct score. The tension did not slacken from the first timpani drum roll, and the few cuts were of no importance. (I never did like Lucrezia’s first cabaletta.)

One problem that did affect the sound of the show was the balance of the instruments: Twelve strings among twenty-eight in an opera that (like Lucrezia—and also Lucia) makes heavy use of brass to set the gloomy but romantic scene, is simply not enough of a cushion. The winds were top-heavy without strings to underpin them.

Small objections in an evening of ardent singing and non-stop drama—and the delight of joining a house packed with so many young, hip and eager opera-goers. The remaining performances are going fast. You would be well advised to get into one.

Photo: Kendall Waldman