29 April 2017
Too much film, and not enough opera
by Colin Anderson
|Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia
English National Opera
31 January 2011
In an era when programmes on television are regularly and robotically interrupted by too-long sequences of irritating advertisements and previews, so it is here that opera is found to be disrupting a film show. Here we were in the new Coliseum Odeon watching Mike Figgis's 18-rated movie about Lucrezia Borgia and somebody starts to sing. You don't want that! No orchestral prologue, mind, and not the only music missing either.
Figgis's films are no substitute for the missing pages of Donizetti's score. And while the movies are glossy, replete with nudity and the F-word - they add nothing to the evening; indeed they detract and offer no integration of art-forms. It's film-opera, film-opera, and so on. And the cutoff for the final film, before returning to Donizetti, was amateurish in its abruptness. Ironically, given the opera is of course sung in English, the films are in Italian and have subtitles! And Paul Daniel's English translation for the opera seems more concerned with punning and (surely unintended) laugh-raising rhyming couplets.
Leaving aside his literary efforts, Daniel conducts a decent performance, well-prepared and well-played by the orchestra, but somehow the "whore from hell," as Lucrezia Borgia is described in the conductor's words, doesn't really arrive.
That said, Claire Rutter sings the title-role very well if a little unevenly across the range, but is this really the "dark character" that Figgis speaks off? Of course, this is bel canto and with it a softening of the story and the characters goes with the territory, so the greater reality of the films is appreciated yet brings further incongruity with the opera. Nevertheless, revenge and murder here seemed underplayed and, indeed, Figgis's direction, certainly early on, seems minimal - so too the set of park benches and tree!
Things do improve. The dark lighting is impressive, though, and so too the recreation of The Last Supper (now we have a painting within the opera stage). And alongside Rutter, Michael Fabiano is a splendid tenor as Gennaro, Lucrezia's son taken from her at his birth. Alastair Miles is an imposing Alfonso (her husband, well one of them) and Elizabeth DeShong's depth of tone impresses as Maffio Orsini, although the jury appears to be out as to whether Figgis has understood that is a 'trouser role'.
The problem is this: Lucrezia Borgia is a good opera, both on its own terms and for presaging styles that Verdi would develop, and musically it is well-served here, but there were times when it could have been a concert performance, and while some sets are quite striking, the lack of characterisation and development really lets the side down.
Photo © Stephen Cummiskey