“Lucrezia Borgia” – The Dramatic Foundations of Donizetti’s Opera

Italian Opera Composer Gaetano Donizetti is usually identified – along with Rossini and Bellini – as one of the principal exponents of the bel canto school of the early 19th century, which, in the legends about the history of opera that gained currency in the late 19th and 20th centuries, was in decline by the end of the 1830s, to be replaced by the more vigorous compositional style of Verdi. Yet, a proper analysis of the works of the three composers will show that Donizetti (and to a degree, Bellini also) was in the forefront of innovations that Verdi embraced.

As with much that’s written about the history of opera, much of what we think we know about a particular style of opera is based on the prejudices of writers from later in the 19th century (and from the 20th). The work of various composers are said to define a “school” – say Italian bel canto. So identified, that  “school” is, more often than not, presented unfavorably in contradistinction to an author’s own vision of what opera should look and sound like. Over time, such prejudicial statements are absorbed as uncontestable facts by later generations of persons regarded as knowledgeable about opera.

Many of those experts obviously have a strong foundation and knowledge of Mozart’s half dozen most famous operas, of Wagner’s ten masterpieces, of Verdi’s output, at least from “Rigoletto” onward, and of the most popular works of Puccini and Richard Strauss.

It’s rather rarer to find operatic experts (although there are some important ones) who are as well-versed on the output of any but the most famous of the bel canto operas. These “most famous”, one will concede, are three comic operas by Rossini, one to three operas of Bellini, and one or two serious Donizetti operas in addition to Donizetti’s most famous comic works.

Yet, those who have studied these operas, those by Donizetti in particular, are amazed by the richness that they contain. The melodies, the staggione ensembles, the driving, high energy choral and orchestral interludes, constitute a treasure trove of works that could and should hold the operatic stage even now.

One who knows their virtues can be fatalistic about ever overcoming the prejudicial attitudes about the works that have built up over 160 years. Or one can do something about it. The opera singer Renée Fleming is in the “do something about it” group.

[Below: Renée Fleming is Lucrezia Borgia; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Fleming chose a Donizetti role, the title one in his “Lucrezia Borgia”, that Montserrat Caballe, Leyla Gencer and Beverly Sills had successfully revived in the 1960s and 1970s, and proposed a major rethinking of the opera.

Beginning with long odds, she developed first an artistic collaboration with concept director John Pascoe on a new “Lucrezia”, then invested her fame and immensely important fanbase in the effort to get it revived again in a new production. (Even noting that some star singers are brought into planning for a new production early in the process, it’s still relatively unusual for a singer to be the original promoter of an operatic revival, although, of course, tenors Neil Shicoff and Placido Domingo, to name two, also have done this.)

In 2008, the Washington National Opera, then still under Placido Domingo, that in recent years has been experimenting with reviving operas with little previous recent success in the United States, mounted the Pascoe “Lucrezia Borgia” (Domingo conducting) in a production that I believed does demonstrate the musical and dramatic qualities inherent in the work (for my review, see The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008).

Over the past week, this production has appeared at the San Francisco Opera. As no one who knows my strong support for the opera and the production doubted, I gave it a good review. Yet, several of my colleagues in both the electronic and print media seemed sufficiently down on the opera that I received irritated e-mails on what, not I, but OTHERS, had written about the production.

Is it possible to make sense out of the “Lucrezia Borgia” story?

For those whose introduction to the opera was this production, whether at Washington’s Kennedy Center or San Francisco’s War Memorial, I offer some thoughts on the plausibility of Lucrezia’s plot.

Lucrezia Borgia is an historical figure, as were several other Donizetti characters in his operas written in the 1830s (many, but not all, of those in “Anna Bolena”, “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux” for example). Second, none of these operas are documentaries, and they mix fact and fiction. However, in none of these quasi-historical operas, do I believe it essential to try to discern what is fact and what fiction, but instead, to consider what is dramatically plausible.

The Borgias and the Estes

In the opera, Lucrezia and her husband Alfonso d’Este are a power couple, each with their own operatives and each seemingly with their own political agenda. Is this plausible? Certainly, yes. There is indeed historical fact to support this. This was a marriage of two great political families, which included some of the most lethal despots of the day. Lucrezia did not marry a Borgia, she was one. It is entirely plausible that such a woman would have her own spies doing her personal bidding, independent of her husband.

[Below: Alfonso d’Este (Vitalij Kowaljow, standing) gives Lucrezia Borgia (Renée Fleming, seated) a choice as how her son will be executed; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Is it plausible that Lucrezia would have used her operatives to discover the identity and current situation of an illegitimate son that her family forced her to give up at birth? Absolutely. However, here we are not considering the documentary evidence of whether the real life Lucrezia had an illegitimate child, but the dramatic situation that Donizetti set to music.

A powerful woman still can have a maternal instinct and strong desire to connect with the son she bore 20 years previously. It seems natural to me that she would use trusted aides at her command to find out his whereabouts. Would she travel to Venice to try to meet him in person? A powerful woman with the capability of doing so (and armed protectors at her service) very plausibly would follow through with her objective!

[Below: Lucrezia Borgia (Renée Fleming, left) travels to Venice to meet Gennaro (Michael Fabiano, right), the son her family forced her to abandon at his birth; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Is it plausible that she would seek revenge for an insult from her son’s friends? Of course! Even in the 21st century there are families of despots that you can imagine seeking revenge for an insult, particularly when insulting comments about the families of the ruling elites is considered to be treasonable and punishable by death or exile.

Is it plausible that she would have used poison – “Borgia wine” – to advance her political objectives and/or those of her husband? This was a convenient way of suppressing dissent and ridding oneself of “enemies of the regime” on the Italian peninsula at least back to classical Roman times. Those charged with suppressing dissent in despotic regimes – an idea not unknown even in the 21st century –  will use whatever means are at their disposal.

Given this environment, what separates this storyline from a summary of the ways that the secret police and other operatives control dissent is the accident that Gennaro, whom she learns is the son she is looking for, is an associate of the subversive forces, who play the dangerous game of insulting a Borgia. Gennaro, Orsini and their sidekicks are obviously social malcontents (we would probably applaud their revolutionary spirit) willing to “rage against the machine”.

That they are all killed at something like age 20 in this opera is directly related to the reckless idea of dissent through a public act of vandalism. Given their behavior, whether commendable or not, I cannot imagine them continuing to do this and surviving until age 30.

The Pascoe Twist

John Pascoe adds one element obviously not in the libretto – that Gennaro and Orsini are lovers. Is an openly gay relationship in Renaissance Italy something that could be imagined? According to historical accounts, yes!

I have argued that there is only one circumstance where it is “cool” for a production to change the sexual orientation of an operatic character, and that is when it clarifies the plot. Does revealing a sexual relationship between Gennaro and Orsini help the plot?

For a century and three quarters, Gennaro and Orsini were presumably considered straight (if anyone thought about their orientation at all). They had developed personal bonds on a battlefield in the past, and have a “comrades-in-arms” loyalty. But in the opera, Gennaro has just gone through a near death experience, as a result of Alfonso’s death sentence, that Lucrezia has managed to thwart. Her admonition for Gennaro to get out of Ferrara immediately seems plausible enough.

Would the entreaty of a war buddy (Orsini) for Gennaro to ignore the advice of the woman who, through quick thinking, has just saved his life, lead you to change your plans? In deference to your war buddy, would you stick around for another evening, despite the personal danger to you? Would your buddy’s wish to attend a party be sufficiently persuasive to so risk his life once more? Perhaps, but is the Pascoe alternative more compelling?

If one’s lover is determined to stay a few more hours in Ferrara, and promises to travel with you at dawn the next day if you will go with him to a party that he believes is important, would you grant him the few more hours rather than separate from him? If you thought him in danger, would you leave? Then, if you discover you both are poisoned and you are offered an antidote which is insufficient to save you both, would you decide to die with him instead of living without him? To me, the dramatic motivations for Gennaro’s decisions are convincing.

[Below: Maffio Orsini (Elizabeth DeShong, right) convinces Gennaro (Michael Fabiano, left) to stay one more night in Ferrara with him; edited image, baswed on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

What about Lucrezia’s revelation to the dying Gennaro that he is a Borgia, and Gennaro’s expression of regret, after learning this, that the poison’s effect is irreversible. That also strikes me as dramatically feasible. From the first scene, Gennaro has expressed a desire to know who his mother was, and the prospect of actually getting to know her might have caused him to change his mind about the antidote, but he knows that by now it’s too late.

But is “Lucrezia Borgia” as dramatically feasible as “Rigoletto”?

Regardless of the bad reputation that the Donizetti plots have in some circles, “Lucrezia Borgia” makes dramatic sense throughout. And, all the while, the motivations are more easily understood, than, say, those of Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto”. The circumstances that end “Lucrezia Borgia” – Gennaro unexpectedly being at a party at which Lucrezia’s operatives have planned the deaths of  his friends – seems rather more plausible that those of the final scene in “Rigoletto”.

In the final scene of “Rigoletto”, the Duke of Mantua is saved from assassination by the unexpected arrival in a midnight storm of a man, who is really a woman the Duke raped but who wishes to sacrifice her life for his. Perhaps it’s explicable, but it requires several levels of pyschological discussion to understand Gilda’s motivation, as well as perfect timing in her arrival at Sparafucile’s inn.

I stand by my earlier statements that “Lucrezia Borgia” is an opera that rewards those who come to know it well, not only musically, but even dramatically.

For my review of the San Francisco mounting of the Pascoe production, see: Fleming, Fabiano, Frizza Fuel San Francisco Opera’s Flaming, Fulfilling First “Lucrezia Borgia” – September 23, 2011.