First, a public service announcement: English National Opera’s high-key publicity around Mike Figgis’s operatic debut seems calculated to draw in that mythical ‘new audience’. If you were indeed lured out of the cinema to this Lucrezia Borgia as your first experience of opera, then I am here to beg you to stick with the genre: it does get better. Much better.
If, as audience member let alone as director, you don’t have much experience of opera, then picking something as patchy as Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia is mistake number one. Mistake number two (as director) is to ignore the piece’s faults and give it a simple naturalistic production on an empty stage, leaving it to stand alone in the harsh light of contemporary scrutiny: its clichéd plot devices and musical rum-te-tum quaking beneath our cold, questioning gaze. Sensing mistake number two, the final – and most calamitous – error is to stop it every half an hour and show us, in bright, contrasty and well-executed film, what cool, pouting, heavy-breathing romance the modern artform of film would bring to such a clunky narrative.
It seemed clear from the curious experiment executed on the stage of the Coliseum, that Mike Figgis doesn’t really trust or want to engage with opera as a genre. If he did, he might have taken more time to create meaningful interaction between characters; and more attention may have been paid to the setting, so that the changing scenes and conversations could have been pointed up more starkly. Instead, he chose to focus attention precisely not on the opera, but on a filmic backstory. The four videos were, mostly, well done: beautifully lit with attractive actors, in sharp high-definition clarity. That very clarity made the choice of a plastic baby particularly unfortunate for the unnecessary film scene in which a young Lucrezia gives birth. Two other significant flaws intruded: the typesetting employed on the screen was oddly Powerpoint-ish; and most bizarrely, the films were in Italian with English subtitles. At English National Opera, where we’re watching an Italian opera translated into English. With English surtitles.
Anyway, however well or not you feel they were produced, they were a pointless and unhelpful addition to the opera. In fact, they jarred constantly. The mood of silence created by the film was punctured by the oom-pah introduction to Donizetti’s scenes. When the opera just about managed to establish some dramatic thrust – with the attendant suspension of disbelief required to get inside the musical style – the spell was broken by another film interlude. And as to the film’s content, it was tacky soft-porn for the most part and curious Hammer-horror for the remainder, all heaving bosoms and young men in wide-eyed fear in torchlit stone corridors. A suspicion of lesbianism between Lucrezia and a servant? Really? Strangely, I couldn’t fit that into Donizetti’s presentation of Lucrezia. And we know that Lucrezia was a product of her violent times; we know that the Borgias were a family noted for their violence; we know that women, not to mention the servant classes, were the big losers in all of this. We don’t need the history lesson, and given that Donizetti’s opera makes scant mention of such social commentary, the films only serve to highlight the lack of nuance in the piece. It says much, that when the cinema screen swished down from the flies for the final film, an audible groan rippled around the audience. Nice try, earnestly meant, but I’m afraid it amounted to a failed engagement with the piece.
Musically, things were much better. Claire Rutter was fantastic: expressive singing that was secure, agile and incisive. She had that great combination of dramatic soprano sound in parts, with the agility to encompass the coloratura, particularly in the closing passages. It was thrilling at points, and I so want to see her in other roles soon. She also managed to play down some of the outrageous camp of the piece: her arrival at the final party at which she has poisoned practically everyone, riding on a moving gold dual-throne complete with icons in the canopy, accompanied by an orchestral storm and a fabulous “It’s Lucrezia Borgia”.
Michael Fabiano was in similar territory. Not a sweet voice, but one of consistent power and expressive tone. He brought some real pathos to the role, as well as encompassing the anger and bitterness of being toyed with by the Borgias. I look forward to him being back. The closing 15 minutes were the performance’s highlight, when there was a real connection between the dying Gennaro and his unwitting murderer, now revealed as his mother. It achieved some sort of pathos, solely by virtue of the commitment of these two performers.
Elizabeth DeShong inhabited the oddly ambiguous role of Orsini. Seemingly male in the libretto, s/he was exhorted to ‘behave like a gentleman’, sported long tightly curled blond hair, was referred to as she, and seemed to have an oddly intense love duet with Gennaro. God knows what that was all about.
Alistair Miles, as the Duke of Ferrara, matched Rutter for secure line and spitting venom, especially in the last act when the drama really unfolds. The chorus was OK, but was handled appallingly, with much shuffling into corners, then shuffling forward, then shuffling off back again. In comparison to what a Richard Jones or a Laurent Pelly can do with a group of people on stage – whether or not you like their inventive style – this was woeful.
I don’t know what was more of a handicap, the video interludes, the static production or the truly appalling translation, from which there was no getting away: if you missed a line aurally, it was projected on the surtitle board for all to giggle at. Some of it was in rhyming couplets, elsewhere not, and where it was it was worthy of a Sondheim comedy. I recall something of the order of “Though she doesn’t know it / this wine will make her a poet.” Yep: ‘poet’ and ‘know it’. Elsewhere, I distinctly remember ‘reputation’ rhyming with ‘procrastination’. For fans of Forbidden Broadway’s spoof of Into the Woods, it recalled the low comedy of “I hardly dare to ask it, but what’s a rhyme for basket?” At one point I think it was the chorus that said “But we digress.”, which rhymed with something or other and suddenly – as on a number of other occasions – we were in the world of HMS Pinafore. And, to make it worse, the translation was by the otherwise excellent conductor for the evening, Paul Daniel. Musically, he kept things reasonably taught and dramatic with a bit of a stage-pit issue in the final scene where quite a number of protagonists were split either side of the stage. The ENO orchestra played well for him. It’s his strength, clearly: I’m not sure, on this evidence, that the same can be said for libretto translation.
There is so much that could be debated about why ENO chose this route and why they have pinned their colours to the mast of celebrity (non-opera) directors, rather than investing their time in nurturing top-class performances. A staff director – hell, even an aspiring director plucked from one of the music colleges – could have produced a more convincing production of this difficult work. This project may or may not have had a primary aim around cultivating new audiences. If not, then a relatively rarity should have been treated with rather more grace. If so, then even with a first rate production, I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone as a first time opera. It confirms all the prejudices that circulate about opera, and takes some experience to know what you are listening out for in order to get pleasure from it. It doesn’t help, therefore, when the people in charge of the production seem not to believe in it and can’t nurture its particular qualities.
I’ve never seen Lucrezia Borgia before, and I feel that I still haven’t quite seen it. It feels like there’s a reasonably good – if perhaps not great – opera hidden in there, but this wasn’t the platform from which it could be shown at its best.
So bravo to the cast. Partly for performances, partly for singing this doggerel without giggling, and partly for not walking out having been upstaged by the director’s mistrustful inventions. As to the rest, I hope it’s provoking a bit of soul-searching in St Martin’s Lane.