Coming off of the theatrical extravaganza of King Lear from the same festival, in which every conceivable conceit, set piece, and lighting trick is crammed into the 3-hour opera, Lucrezia Borgia is striking in its simplicity. No sets, no costuming, outside of standard tuxes and black gowns, slightly embellished for the leading players. As a theater-based reviewer rather than opera expert, I can confess that I was skeptical when I realized the plainness. Opera’s capacity for avant-garde grandiosity, not beholden to our contemporary emphasis on natural realism, is what I have always found to be the genre’s most enjoyable feature. And yet, the orchestra and performers of Lucrezia Borgia have educated me on the potential emotion, storytelling, and beauty possible in being able to study the faces of the performers rather than become lost in the theatricality.
Lucrezia Borgia, an opera rife with controversy and change over time, is an operatic retelling of a Victor Hugo drama of the same name. The Borgias and their many scandals have become popular fare in modern culture, but in 1833, the scandals of a Duke and Duchess, the daughter of a Pope, were not so comfortable source material. The story begins as Gennaro (Juan Diego Flórez), along with his dear friend Orisini (Teresa Iervolino), spend an evening in Venice partying with a group of young nobleman the night before they are set to travel to Ferrara. During the course of the party, Orsini once again bemoans the crimes and horrors of Lucrezia Borgia (Krassimira Stoyanova), wife of Duke Alfonso of Ferrara (Ildar Abdrazakov). Gennaro, deciding to sleep instead of listening to Orsini’s complaints, is later awoken by a beautiful woman, who he feels an instant connection to. He reveals that the only person he loves more than her is his mother, who he had never had the chance to know outside of a letter. Unfortunately, Gennaro’s friends return and list off the horrendous crimes of the woman, finally revealing her identity: Lucrezia Borgia. Although separated now, their paths continue to cross as Gennaro goes to Ferrara. Revenge plans intertwine as Alfonso seeks to kill Gennaro, who he assumes is his wife’s lover, Lucrezia seeks to punish the men who humiliated her in Venice, and Gennaro is left torn between his oldest friend and the woman he has an unknown connection to.
It is impossible to choose a standout performer, since every time I thought I chose one, someone else captivated me with a solo or an emotional duet. Standing at the fore would be leading tenor, Juan Diego Flòrez in the role of Gennaro. His body and voice work in tandem to produce the pathos and passions of Gennaro, able to tell a story beyond just hitting the right notes. However, his energetic draw of the noble protagonist does not diminish the effect of the ardent revenge of Alfonso or the vacillations between spite and maternal love of Lucrezia. The only problem the production faces is the acoustics, with the choral voices barely registering above the orchestra. However, the duets or solos are able to stand above the orchestration, complementing it rather than competing in this tale of ‘la Borgia’.
As quoted in the program, Donizetti’s cry for “love, violent love, for without it any subject will be cold,” is well met in this tale of lies, betrayal, and unintended consequences spurred by familial, romantic, and maternal love.