United States Donizetti, Lucrezia Borgia: Soloists, orchestra and chorus, San Francisco Opera, Riccardo Frizza (conductor), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 29.9.2011 (HS)
Lucrezia Borgia—Renée Fleming
Maffio Orsini—Elizabeth DeShong
Alfonso D’este—Vitalij Kowaljow
Jeppo Liverotto—Christopher Jackson
Oloferno Vitellozzo—Brian Jagde
Apostolo Gazello—Austin Kness
Ascanio Petrucci—Ao Li
Director and Production Designer—John Pascoe
Chorus Director—Ian Robertson
It’s quite a cast that can overshadow Renée Fleming, but the young and vital group singing Donizetti’s creaky bel canto rarity Lucrezia Borgia not only held their own but, despite the undeniable star power of America’s leading soprano, it was tenor Michael Fabiano, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong and bass Vitalij Kowaljow who claimed the spotlight. Mind you, Fleming performed the role like the true artist she is, singing with beautiful tone, intelligent phrasing, pitch-perfect trills, security at all points in her range and the ability to create a character without pushing the envelope too far. But at 52 the rewards are not so much in blazing coloratura or ringing high notes.
In this performance – the third of seven at San Francisco Opera – despite the gory, melodramatic plot, none of the cast went for the jugular musically. They preferred instead to sing the music with directness and clarity. Perhaps they were reined in by the conducting of Riccardo Frizza, making his house debut, who seldom raised the results above the routine. Too often, he seemed to be plodding rhythmically. The orchestra played with its usual acuity, but never seemed to breathe with the singers.
The ludicrous story paints Lucrezia as a murdering monster, poisoning people at whim. In the plot’s machinations, a young man, Gennaro, falls in love with Lucrezia, not knowing she is his mother. Lucrezia knows he is her long-lost son but won’t tell him. Although she resists his advances, the Duke sees them and, convinced the boy is her lover, contrives to have him poisoned. Lucrezia happens to have an antidote with her, but Gennaro and his bosom buddy, Orsini, end up dead in the end anyway. Lucrezia finishes off the opera with a tour-de-force scene, aria and fierce cabaletta, in which she reveals to everyone that she was Gennaro’s mother, finally offing herself with a knife to the throat.
It’s even more complicated than that, but you get the idea. This piece is all about the music and the moment-to-moment situations that inspire it, not any grand overarching ideas. And that’s why the quality of singing saves the day in a production that tries so hard to amp up the drama that it comes off as clunky. Towering brick walls and a half-flight of steps dead center stultify the sets. Misguided and unnecessary homoerotic overtones between Gennaro and Orsini (toned down from opening night) muddy the relationships and only confuse the already befuddling plot. Best if the singers just unleash their voices and not worry about much else.
As Gennaro, Fabiano was a revelation, pouring out clear, liquid sound, shaping each phrase with subtle dynamics. This is a major voice, capable of singing Verdi heroes, and he has a vital stage presence – and he looks pretty good in a chest-revealing costume, too. DeShong, as his buddy Orsini, couldn’t have topped five feet in stature despite being clad in high-heeled boots, but her voice drops excitingly and richly into the low ranges. To hear a chest voice of this depth come out of this stubby body is remarkable. It’s a rich sound that climbs seamlessly up to a bright top. Kowaljow, as the Duke, shouldered past them both in vocal power, his bass alternately caressing the music and then flinging out nastiness.
Excellent young singers filled the remaining roles – a strong vocal showing across the board – while the chorus distinguished itself as usual with incisive singing.
In this company, Fleming, appropriately, was a more mature presence, yet still lithe enough to wear form-fitting costumes and make a believable love interest for Gennaro. Apparently some alterations were made on her Act III costume, a form-fitting armor and high-collared cape number that made her look like an S&M mistress in opening-night photos. The high collar was gone, and the overall impression was softer.
Softness, however, is not the raison d’être of this opera. Though what we got was impressive enough, this lurid story could have used a harder edge. More passionate conducting and singing would have made for a more demented – and thrilling – evening.