‘Mommy Dearest’ as a not so grand opera
By JANOS GEREBEN
San Francisco, September 23, 2011
A couple of strange things happened to Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” on the way to its first performance at the San Francisco Opera tonight, a mere 178 years after its La Scala premiere.
First, this star vehicle for Renée Fleming in the title role picked up a dozen hitchhikers, who sang gloriously. La Fleming herself looked gorgeous and sounded in a range from fine to great, but she sure had lots of company in the sit-up-and-take-notice department. Specifics below.
Second, star, passengers, and all, the whole thing sank. In three hours of generic Donizetti (which normally is good enough for me), and a melodrama in the same class with “The Drunkard,” whatever life the work might have had was drained by John Pascoe’s insultingly clueless direction.
While Pascoe provided impressively professional — if needlessly moving — sets, and opulent costumes, he fell back on stage direction recalling the Amateur Hour.
Goose-stepping economy “troops” of four or five, fascist salutes, Roman salutes, Etruscan salutes, lighting striking every time something of Significance happened, crowds entering and exiting, awkward-to-ridiculous mechanical movements.
To be fair, even a real director would have trouble with this material. A grizzled and devoted veteran of opera, I know how to suspend disbelief, and overlook a dragon here and a flying horse there when the music and drama combine for an experience to treasure.
That’s not “Lucrezia,” certainly not with Felice Romani’s libretto, even if the half-remembered play from high school by Victor Hugo was considerably better.
There are a couple of essays in the program speaking of Lucrezia “living in a world of male dominance,” and enumerating several of her alleged virtues. The opera is about another person, a thoroughly nasty mass murder, engaging in wholesale poisoning. Just noticed an idiotic note under the cast list: “Time and place Renaissance Italy, a time of male domination.” Oh, pshaw!
So, in the first act we meet Lucrezia (Fleming doing great in her first aria) and in case her mask poses a problem to identify her, there is a sign flying over her, saying “Borgia.” Her misdeeds are revealed, one by one, by Gennaro’s friends, but the besotted hero (Michael Fabiano, in a vocally impressive debut) keeps telling her about the mother he never knew.
At the end of the act, she is finally revealed as Lucrezia (even without the sign above her), but if you want to confirm your suspicion that she is Gennaro’s mother, you must wait until the very end. My apologies if this is a spoiler. Oh, and Gennaro gets killed in the end because his best friend – wink, wink – doesn’t want to miss a party in Ferrara.
Now to the good in all this silliness, this bedtime for Bonzo: the orchestra, under the knowing baton of Riccardo Frizza played excellently well. In the cast, besides Fabiano – lyric tenor of tomorrow, with a fine edge to his voice, but lurching about even when he is not being poisoned (twice) – there were, for starters, Elizabeth DeShong’s Orsini and Vitalij Kowaljow’s Duke Alfonso (Lucrezia’s current husband).
The pintsized DeShong has a powerful voice, which she uses adventurously and superbly. Kowaljow takes no such chances, he sings in the straight, but not narrow: a tremendous bass.
Then there is a host of Adler Fellows, past and present, and young artists singing as if they have spent decades on main stages: Austin Kness (Gazella), Brian Jagde (Vitellozzo), Igor Vieira (Gubetta), Daniel Montenegro (Rustighello), and Ryan Kuster (Astolfo). So much talent that could have been used in a better vehicle. Or opera.
Lucrezia Borgia: Renée Fleming
Maffio Orsini: Elizabeth DeShong
Gennaro: Michael Fabiano *
Alfonso: d’Este Vitalij Kowaljow
Rustighello: Daniel Montenegro
Jeppo: Liverotto Christopher Jackson
Oloferno: Vitellozzo Brian Jagde
Apostolo: Gazello Austin Kness
Astolfo: Ryan Kuster
Ascanio: Petrucci Ao Li *
Gubetta: Igor Vieira
Conductor: Riccardo Frizza *
Director: John Pascoe *
Production Designer: John Pascoe
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson