Lucrezia Borgia

Reviewer's rating

Despite all the noise and nonsense seeping out of the Arts Council about opera funding, it is great to be able to celebrate the fact that English Touring Opera (ETO) is back on the road and doing what it does so well – bringing lesser-known operas to smaller venues all around England, fourteen in all. Although Donizetti is rightly celebrated, his work about the (unfairly) notorious Lucrezia Borgia is rarely performed. This is a great pity because it is full of sparkling music, arias to bring the best out of fine singers, and proper operatic melodrama – as this brilliant ETO production demonstrates. Despite the fact that the production has to be easy to transport and able to fit in different shaped theatres, creative direction and design mean that no sacrifices in musical and dramatic quality appear to have been made. The story can hardly be called complex or subtle, but this production faces the shortcomings head on and triumphs.

A group of young bloods is partying in Venice. Amongst them are Gennaro and Orsini who are best friends, having survived battlefields together. A masked lady comes across a sleeping Gennaro and, when he wakes, an immediate rapport develops. Gennaro’s friends return and recognise the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara. A slanging match ensues and the groups part. The action moves to Ferrara where Gennaro, swayed by his friends’ accusations, insults the Borgia name. He is immediately arrested and condemned to death. When Lucrezia sees him, she tries to get him pardoned but the Duke will not listen. However, when Gennaro is dosed with poison, she manages to slip him the antidote and urges him to flee Ferrara.

In the final act, the bloods are lured to a party and Lucrezia poisons their wine in revenge for their insults in Venice. When she realises with horror that Gennaro is among them – she thought he had fled the city – she reveals that she is his mother and tries to persuade him to take the antidote. All ends in tragedy.

Paula Sides is a commanding presence as Lucrezia. Her soaring soprano is more than adequate for the great and demanding showpiece arias – and generating real pathos in the scene where she implores the Duke to spare Gennaro. It would be fair to say that she does not look of an age to be his mother – but then incest was one of the crimes routinely ascribed to Lucrezia. As Gennaro, Thomas Elwin has all the vocal power needed and his duets with Orsini shone, but the characterisation is perhaps a work in progress. In the small role of Duke Alfonso, Aidan Edwards was splendid, with a bass voice that rattles the rafters. Katie Coventry was a fine Orsini, and played the bromance with Gennaro on full throttle.

As ever the lack of the presence of a large chorus is frustrating but the ensemble work of the full team of singers was encouraging and, as the tour progresses, it will flower.  The Old Street Band, under the capable baton of Gerry Cornelius, produce tones that sound great in the friendly auditorium of the wonderful Hackney Empire, doing Donizetti’s long flowing lines proud. It will be interesting to see if the acoustic of some of the more modern theatres they will visit later match up to this fine press night. It is an auspicious start the ETO’s season and it’s well worth visiting their website to check if they are coming to your town.