Review: The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s “Lucrezia Borgia” – Washington National Opera, November 17, 2008

The middle of the 20th century was an exciting time for those curious about the Italian bel canto operatic masterpieces of Gaetano Donizetti. First Maria Callas and then Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballe and Beverly Sills used their stardom to advance the cause of Donizetti’s dramatic operas. I myself saw Caballe as Elisabetta in “Roberto Devereux”; Gencer, Sutherland and Sills in the title role of “Lucia di Lammermoor”; Sutherland likewise as “Anna Bolena” and “Maria Stuarda”; and Sills as “Lucrezia Borgia”.

Those of us lucky to see Sills in the New York City Opera production of “Lucrezia” were surely impressed by Sills’ coloratura magic, and the always appealing music Donizetti wrote both for the four principals – especially Maffio Orsini’s rousing ballata Il segreto per esser felici – and for the comprimario cast.

But the New York City Opera production was not especially memorable, and the book on the libretto is that it seems pretty daffy – a mom poisons her son twice, but provides him with an antidote, which he agrees to use the first time, but, to his mother’s sorrow, not the second. Opera managements have mounted the opera as a star turn for a reigning superstar, rather than as a coherent theatrical experience for its opera audiences. Production designer John Pascoe set out to change that.

Pascoe writes of his ten-year correspondence with Renee Fleming, who was a strong proponent for his creating a new production of the opera. (Fleming, in fact, led the cast for four of the seven performances at Washington National Opera.)

Pascoe undertook an extensive study of Felice Romani’s libretto and of Victor Hugo’s play Lucrece Borgia, its source material.  He also studied the historical Lucrezia Borgia and the rumors and legends that surround her and her family.

Of course, Hugo could push the envelope a bit further in a spoken play produced for the Paris of 1833, soon after the liberal July Monarchy had redefined the French crown’s relationship with the masses after the Revolution of 1830, than could Romani, who had to deal with censors employed by the conservative Hapsburg Dynasty that had replaced Napoleonic France as the rulers of Milan and the surrounding province of Lombardy.

Romani and Donizetti had to make compromises in the plot with both censors and the diva who was to perform the title role. But in the 21st century no censors and (at least any of whom I am aware) no divas have the power to force changes in an opera’s plot. Nor can operatic production designers change the music or the libretto. However, the production designers can insinuate ideas into the production that likely never occurred to the opera’s composer and librettist.

Thus, Pascoe, with his close study of the historical Lucrezia made two fundamental decisions. The first is based on the Renaissance era speculation that Lucrezia was raped by her brother Juan (who was then killed in revenge by another brother, Cesare Borgia.) Pascoe proposed the idea that Gennaro was the product of the rape.

One can build upon Pascoe’s revelatory insight to construct a backstory that may or may not have anything to do with the historical person, but certainly helps in understanding the motivation of key characters in the opera.

Lucrezia, residing in Catholic Italy, brought the child of the rape to term, but her family, absolutely opposed to any idea of the offspring of an incestuous relationship being raised among them, dispatched the son away at birth, to a place unknown to Lucrezia. Once Lucrezia becomes Duchess of Ferrara and has personal operatives at her command, she launches a search for her lost son, and, eventually identifies who and where he is.

In a previous review I raised the question “When is it cool to change the sexual orientation of an operatic character? (See Jones the Ripper’s “Queen of Spades” in S.F. – June 12, 2005.) At the time I raised the question, I could offer no answer. Pascoe’s second innovation inspires an answer: When it strengthens the opera’s dramatic effect and clarifies the motivations of the characters. He makes it absolutely unambiguous that Gennaro and Maffio Orsini are not only gay, but are lovers.

[Gennaro (Vittorio Grigolo) and his lover Maffio Orsini (Kate Aldrich, top); edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of Washington National Opera.]

I will return to the discussion of the otherwise baffling choices these operatic characters make in my comments on the pyschological underpinnings of Pascoe’s reconceptualization of the opera later in this review. But anyone who discovered that Washington National Opera’s “Lucrezia Borgia” production was a highly satisfactory theatrical experience more likely than not regarded this as an unexpected bonus. Almost certainly most in the audience came to hear the singers, without any expectations that they would find the story to be particularly interesting.

Notes on the Performance

As mentioned above, Renee Fleming was the headliner for four of the seven performances. Sondra Radvanovsky, whose amazing appearance in the title role of Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” in Los Angeles, I had reported this past September (see Friedkin’s Miraculous, Radvanovsky’s Revelatory L.A. “Suor Angelica” – September 6, 2008) was Lucrezia for the rest of the opera’s run.  Both of these divas were performing at the Washington National Opera for the first time (as was Kate Aldrich, the Maffio Orsini, and several of the comprimario singers).

I have seen Fleming in several different roles (although, so far, none by Donizetti), but am now only beginning to appreciate the extraordinary talents of Radvanovsky. In a crowded month of great operatic presentations on the West Coast and in the Midwest, it was Radvanovsky’s Lucrezia I crossed the continent to see.

[Sondra Radvanovsky as Lucrezia Borgia; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of Washington National Opera.]

The conductor was Placido Domingo, who displayed great affection for Donizetti’s highly dramatic but always melodious music. Domingo has a discerning ear and eye for operatic talent, and productions with which he is associated – particularly those in which he sings or conducts – have become a magnet for young artists who are likely to be the future stars of opera. Young singers in the comprimario parts hail from Mexico, Russia, Ukraine, China and the United States.

The Gennaro for all seven performances was Vittorio Grigolo (who had had a highly successful debut at Washington National Opera in 2007 as Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme”).

[Vittorio Grigolo as Gennaro; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of Washington National Opera.]

Gennaro and Orsini run with a group of young men who clearly know the party circuits (and, in this production, likely the gay undergrounds) of Venice and Ferrara. Their four companions, each are played by past or present Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists – Grigory Soloviov (as Apostolo Gazella), Oleksandr Pushniak (as Ascanio Petrucci), Jesus Hernandez (as Jeppo Liverotto) and Jose Ortega (as Oloferno Vitellozo), and each are Washington National Opera debuts.

As Domingo begins the orchestral introduction, a tableau is seen in which Lucrezia (Radvanovsky) appears at center stage in her green cape. Soon we become aware of the basic structures that will form all of the physical settings of the opera.

The production sets are organized around several stone towers of imposing heights, which are repositioned to border the Venetian canal in the prologue, to frame the soon-to-be-defaced Borgia monument and the Duke Alfonso’s dungeon in the first act, or to be the Ferrara streets or the Negroni palace in the second. A set of steps lead from the front of the stage to a platform at mid-stage on which most of the action occurs.

The prologue takes place under a starry sky. Orsini (Kate Aldrich) and his sidekicks enter with torches and proclaim the Venetian night life superior to every other place. Aldrich begins one of the showpiece numbers that make this one of the most interesting, although certainly one of the last of the bel canto musico roles that is still performed.

When Lucrezia’s agent Gubetta (nicely sung by Robert Cantrell) speaks up for Ferrara, where Duchess Lucrezia Borgia is the supreme hostess, Orsini expresses horror at the mention of her name. Gubetta warns the disguised Lucrezia that, even with diplomatic protection, it is dangerous for her to be wandering around Venice, but she is here to establish communication with her son, Gennaro.

(For a culture associated with sons revering their mothers, it is worth commenting how few 19th century Italian operas speak of any mother-son relationships. Turiddu and Mamma Lucia in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” seem to be the most normal. Azucena in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” is motherly towards Manrico (who is not her biological son), but only because she accidentally threw her own son into a bonfire. Her son’s fate would have been Manrico’s had she not been confused. And Gennaro had only met his mother when he was an adult, after which she poisoned him twice, although in her weak defense, the first time was under duress and the second time unintentional.)

The great duets in the prologue and second act between Lucrezia and Gennaro are among the greatest moments in bel canto opera. Radvanovsky and Grigolo presented a very affecting, extraordinarily well-sung interplay of emotions. Both appear to be in the early part of important operatic careers.

I have made reference to the attending live operatic performances of each of the great Donizetti singers of the past generation – Gencer, Sutherland, Sills and Caballe.  In addition to Donizetti, I also saw each of the four in live performances of Verdi roles, and know that Radvanovsky has built her reputation in Verdian opera.

At Los Angeles Opera, as Suor Angelica, Radvanovsky demonstrated the ability to sing a heavier spinto role, but it not that common for a great Puccini singer to be accomplished with Donizetti as well.  Therefore, I looked forward to hearing her in live performance as Lucrezia.

I find that Radvanovsky possesses the power, flexibility and coloratura technique of each of these previous operatic greats, and all the requisite abilities to display a range of vocal textures.

Radvanovsky showed that she has the ability to project both pianissimo and fortissimo and to move between them, to sing legato passages elegantly, and to smoothly and effortlessly display mastery of the chromatic scales, cadenzas and, to an extent, even the trills that Donizetti wrote for the great divas of the 1830s.

The opera, like “Maria Stuarda”, at one point requires the soprano to sustain a note over several measures, increasing its volume towards the end. She did this, as Donizetti expected, with a single breath. But unlike some of the divas who would sell out houses in the 1960s and 1970s, Radvanovsky also is an arresting physical presence and a skilled actress.

Grigolo, in his early 30s, is a leggiero tenor with a nice-sized voice and handsome looks, and is an engaging actor. It is entirely possible that, with his growing fan base in Europe and successes in the States, that he could soon have the box office draw of, say, Rolando Villazon or Juan Diego Florez.

Although he impressed as Rodolfo at Washington National Opera, it is my hope that Grigolo stays with the leggiero and lyric tenor repertoire. His voice is better suited for those roles. If he does achieve the star power that I think he will, he should explore the tenor parts that Donizetti wrote for great tenors of the bel canto era.  Some of these roles are in operas other than those that the famous sopranos with star power encouraged operatic managements to revive.

Ruggero Raimondi was scheduled to be the Duke Alfonso, but was indisposed. John Marcus Bindel was a mostly satisfactory substitute, although he tended to sing forte through most of his role, which thereby had a monochromatic effect. On the other hand, in his trio with Gigolo’s Gennaro and Radvanovsky’s Lucrezia, he tailored his voice to balance with his colleagues.

I had seen Raimondi in the unexpectedly abridged “Don Pasquale” in Zurich described elsewhere on this website, so although he was scheduled to perform in two of the operas on my “Donizetti Quest” list, I have still not yet heard a complete performance by him of a Donizetti role.

The Pyschological Underpinnings of Pascoe’s “Lucrezia Borgia”

Pascoe suggests that Gennaro was conceived during an incestuous rape of Lucrezia and in adulthood is the lover of Maffio Orsini. Consider how these two innovations illuminate Gennaro’s psychological state and explain his actions that lead to his death.

(What follows is my stating explicitly what Pascoe implies in his comments published in the opera program. Pascoe’s stage directions to the performers have an explicitness that the program notes do not.)

Gennaro encounters the person he regards as the “kind woman”, who is old enough to be his mother (because she is his mother). He reveals to her that he is obsessed by the fact that he knows nothing of his origins, other than he was raised in a fishing village, but loves the image in his mind of what his mother is like.

Gennaro’s attraction to Lucrezia, the “kind woman” is as a mother substitute, rather than the lover that we assume Romani and Donizetti intended. Pascoe deliberately accentuates that Lucrezia and Orsini are rivals for Gennaro’s affection, and they form the kind of triangle that has re-occurred in countless occasions over the millennia in which a mother is jealous of her son’s lover.  That this is Catholic Italy and both her son and his lover are gay adds another dimension to this traditional triangle.

[Below: Gennaro (Vittorio Grigolo, left) addresses his mother Lucrezia Borgia (Sondra Radvanovsky); edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of Washington National Opera.]

After Lucrezia is unmasked, Orsini insults and endangers the life of a woman notorious for obtaining revenge.  Orsini makes it clear that Gennaro must choose between himself and Lucrezia, the Borgia who murdered his own brother. Gennaro engages in the first of a succession of self-destructive acts – defacing the Borgia family monument in Ferrara, even though spies of both Ferrara’s Duke and Duchess lurk about.

After Duke Alfonso forces Lucrezia to serve Gennaro “Borgia wine” and she subsequently supplies him an antidote and effects his escape, Gennaro tarries in Ferrara. Gennaro’s indecision as whether to leave for Venice immediately is because Orsini, who seems to be both reckless and the decision-maker in their relationship, does not wish to leave Ferrara until after Negroni’s party.

But Lucrezia has arranged her vengeance against Orsini. She not only seeks revenge for his insults but is determined also to rid herself of a rival for her son’s favor. Nor will Orsini be dissuaded from attending the Princess Negroni’s party.

As two soldiers of fortune used to high risk behaviors, both Orsini and Gennaro agree to attend the party and then leave Ferrara at dawn. Both, however, proceed to drink to excess and are unaware that Gennaro, Orsini and their four companions have all been isolated in a locked room, and have been served poisonous wine.

It does not occur to Lucrezia, that when she has spared her son from certain death and warned him to leave the duchy immediately, that he would not follow her counsel.   She has every reason to expect Gennaro will not be present at Princess Negroni’s party where she will obtain her revenge on Orsini and his friends. Her husband’s spies, unsympathetic to Gennaro, realize what is happening, but prefer that Lucrezia be blindsided.

Gennaro’s lingering death becomes ever more poignant, as he realizes that Orsini, the man he loves is dying and he has too little of the antidote left to save the two of them, so he refuses Lucrezia’s entreaties to save himself.  Yet, after the time has passed for the antidote to work, he learns that he is a Borgia and Lucrezia is the mother whom he always wished to know. They exchange the conventional sentiments about getting to know each other in heaven, and he dies.

This is powerful stuff. Pascoe’s take on the opera is more or less in the libretto, but absent a director that will connect some of the dots, it is inexplicit.  I suspect I have connected a few more dots than Pascoe intended to do publicly. But I also believe that there will be a number of people willing to approach the storyline and libretto of “Lucrezia Borgia” as more serious fare than had been its reputation.

Even though the opera’s reputation had faded beginning in the latter part of the 19th century, it was a sensation when it first blazed its way into the opera scene. It proved an influence on the dramatic ideas of the young Giuseppe Verdi, only 20 years old.

The Verdi scholar, Julian Budden, refers to “Lucrezia” many times over his three volume work on Verdi’s operas, especially its influence on “Rigoletto”.  The sinister but amusing encounter Qui que fai? between Astolfo (played by David B. Morris) and Rustighello (played by former Domingo-Cafritz artist Yingxi Zhang) over a dance-like melody is, Budden suggests, the certain inspiration for Rigoletto’s first encounter with the assassin for hire, Sparafucile.

The Pascoe production at Washington National Opera is an extraordinary contribution to the Donizetti Revival, one that takes a more sophisticated look at the theatricality within “Lucrezia Borgia” that lay hidden from even its 20th century admirers. Perhaps this is the opening salvo of the second era within an ongoing re-evaluation of Donizetti’s works.