A Second Look Review: “Lucrezia Borgia” at the San Francisco Opera – October 2, 2011

This is my third review of a performance of the John Pascoe production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” (see The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008 and Fleming, Fabiano, Frizza Fuel San Francisco Opera’s Flaming, Fulfilling First “Lucrezia Borgia” – September 23, 2011) and the second one  during the San Francisco Opera’s Fall 2011 season, both of the San Francisco performances starring Renee Fleming.

In addition, I posted a commentary (see “Lucrezia Borgia” – The Dramatic Foundations of Donizetti’s Opera) on whether Donizetti’s operatic treatment of the famous duchessa held together dramatically. During that commentary, I mentioned that, although my own previous reviews of the production had been positive, I had received e-mails from my readers expressing concern about negative remarks that some other reviewers made about the opera, its principal singer, its production, and/or its staging.

Since I was reviewing yet another performance of the opera, I thought it would be interesting to keep in mind the concerns that others had expressed, and, where necessary, to alter my remarks if my opinions change, or illuminate those opinions which have not changed, but which, possibly, have been inadequately expressed.

[Below: Lucrezia Borgia (Renee Fleming) from a distance admires the handsomeness of a son who does not know of her; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

From Whence is a Reviewer Coming?

Back in the days of vinyl recordings, the magazine High Fidelity had a policy of which I very much approved. For its reviews of classical recordings, the reviewers that the publication invited to comment on a recording, were those known to have appreciation for and expertise in writing about the musical composition being performed, or at least the genre which they were reviewing.

Any review, of course, is a matter of personal taste. There are no metrics devised for scientifically evaluating a musical performance, so the more one knows about the reviewer’s methods for judging a performance’s quality, and the reviewer’s knowledge of the composition’s history and performance “standards”, the more likelihood of one’s confidence (or lack thereof) in the information being provided in the review.

In Defense of a Good Review

Normally, I don’t read other reviewers for one practical reason. Since, for the past few years, I have been reviewing 50 0r so live opera performances a year, it takes up all my available allocated time to travel to wherever the opera is being presented ( I live in a community that doesn’t perform opera), attend the opera(s), write the reviews, study for those performances coming up, and, from to time, interview the performing artists, and, when invited, write original articles for opera programs.

[Below: the John Pascoe unit set represents a square in Venice during Carnevale, edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

My criteria for judging performances are relatively simple. Is the singing of sufficient quality that I would rate it as worthy of the major international opera houses worldwide? Does the dramatic performance provide the opera goer with insight into what the composer and, perhaps also, librettist, were trying to do? Does the production make sense? Is this something I would recommend that opera goers spend their time and money (often, quite a bit of money) to experience?

Over the past few years I’ve reported on performances at over two dozen opera companies, some for most of their productions, in Europe and North America; and I have experience attending opera performances going back several decades and encompassing most of the great operatic performers of the past half century. For those reasons, I am confident that when I review give positive reviews for operatic performances, that many more opera goers than myself will find the operatic experience worthwhile.

(Those who have read these pages often will know that I have no problem in giving bad reviews. To prove my point, the following examples are provided: The Singing’s Erste Klasse, but Railroad-Themed “Samson et Dalila” Production Ends in Train Wreck – Deutsche Oper Berlin, May 29, 2011 and Jones the Ripper’s “Queen of Spades” in S.F. – June 12, 2005. On the other hand, I usually won’t travel long distances to attend a performance that I have reason to believe that I won’t like at all.)

But What about the Anti-Lucrezia Comments of Other Reviewers?

In preparation for my second review of the San Francisco performances of this opera, in a performance occurring nine days after the first, I read a reasonably healthy sample of reviews from both print and electronic media. These reviews included many favorable comments, but some hostile ones as well.

[Below: the palace of Alfonso d’Este in John Pascoe’s unit sets; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

I decided, that as I watched and listened to the second performance, I would try to understand if other reviewers saw and heard things that had escaped me the first time around, or, if it is simply a matter of taste. (I’m known as something of a Donizetti aficionado, but I know that there are perfectly respectable people who are not.)

At the top of the list of “other people’s problems” is that the opera is a star turn (my phrase, not theirs) for Renee Fleming. That’s an easy point to concede, but, whether one regards that as a good thing or bad, depends in part on one’s judgment of her performance, and, perhaps also on whether the reviewer wants to scold the opera company on acceding to the wishes of a superstar.

What Does the San Francisco Audience Want?

In an interview I conducted a couple of months ago with opera impresario Francesca Zambello, she stated that she could not tell me what she wanted to do at the Kennedy Center, now that she is assuming the artistic directorship of the Washington National Opera, until she finds out what WNO’s audience wants.

When David Gockley assumed the General Directorship of the San Francisco Opera in 2006, he had a very good idea of what the majority of the S. F. audiences wanted – especially, the crucial categories of subscribers and contributors. They wanted to see the return of “big name” stars in beautiful, theatrically valid productions.

Restoration of the Golden Years of the 1960s and 1970s, the hey-dey of big name stars and glamorous productions in San Francisco – when Kurt Herbert Adler reigned as General Director – was an announced Gockley goal that resonated with the all-important subscriber/contributor community. Two such “big names” (the examples purposely chosen, of course) whom Gockley sought to engage were Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming.

There are reasons that have been more than hinted at on this website’s pages, that it has taken a decade for Fleming to return to San Francisco Opera. But last season, Placido Domingo was coaxed back to San Francisco on his terms. I have no reason to doubt that Fleming’s return to San Francisco was very much on her terms.

She has been a proponent of Donizetti’s opera, the role of Lucrezia Borgia, and of the John Pascoe production on which she significantly collaborated. I suspect that there was not a chance of her returning except in a vehicle that she wished to do.

Perhaps there are reviewers that, I suspect, are a bit alienated by the idea of acceding to the wishes of a superstar, even a diva who felt herself wronged by a previous general director. Perhaps this alienation colored one or two of the thoughts expressed by those reviewers.

[Below: Duke Alfonso d’Este (Vitalij Kowaljow, left) gives instructions to his operative, Rustighello (Daniel Montenegro); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

However, there are some practical considerations that an opera company management has to consider beyond whether the media will be nearly unanimous in its praise. Fleming’s return was popular with the subscribers. Even though subscribers were required to pay an additional 20% over already high prices for tickets to “Lucrezia”, it was a virtual sell-out with standing ovations for each performance. (I had one subscriber tell me that for weeks she was trying to improve her seat location, but even the negative statements from the largest area newspaper’s principal critic seemed not to cause anyone to turn back their tickets.)

“Lucrezia Borgia’s” Influence on “Rigoletto” and other Verdi Operas

As the orchestral prelude began, with its somber melody, an extra-textual tableau is seen which shows alternately Lucrezia, swordfighters at arms, Gennaro, Orsini and company and the Duke Alfonso.

(We have seen other operas where a tableau is shown during a somber beginning of an opera. More than one director has used a tableau to open Verdi’s “Rigoletto”. The “Lucrezia” beginning will stand as only one of several reminders we will have to the later operas of Verdi, Donizetti’s young colleague, who first came to know and love “Lucrezia Borgia” as a young man.)

“Lucrezia’s” prelude itself, with the slow introduction that is juxtaposed with the upbeat music of the boisterous Venetian Carnival, is an unquestioned inpiration for the music heralding the hedonistic court of “Rigoletto’s” Duke of Mantua. It’s often noted that the scene between the Duke’s and Duchess’ respective operatives, Rustighello  and Astolfo, where a chilling conversation takes place over a melodic base, is Verdi’s inspiration for the first scene between Rigoletto and the assassin Sparafucile. But as “Lucrezia” proceeds, one can detect other places where Verdi utilized Donizetti’s musical coloration for his own works.

As examples, Orsini’s first act music presages some of Azucena’s music in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”. The vocal lines of Lucrezia and Alfonso in one of the second act trios with Gennaro is quite like the music of Macbeth and his Lady in Verdi’s early opera. The eerie horns that sound and then repeat after Orsini’s crew is locked in a room at Negroni’s party should remind one of the Monk’s music in Verdi’s “Don Carlos”.

The Pascoe Set Design

Pascoe’s set for the production had towering structures that were repositioned in each of the three acts, representing respectively, a piazza in Venice, a room in the d’Este palace of Duke Alfonso (with steps leading down to a dungeon and room for torture), and the palace of the Princess Negroni.

(One of the reviewers objected to the building materials that the sets seemed to represent as not being historically accurate for Venice; and another that none of the sets showed the splendours of Renaissance art. Rather than be drawn into an argument about whether Pascoe understands Venetian architecture or not, I record my belief that most of the audience were aware, as they should be, that they were not watching a travel documentary. Since the same stage structures had to represent Venice in the first act and different places in Ferrara in the latter two, I personally simply acceded to the Bard’s cautionary remarks in his O for a muse of fire Prologue to Henry V, basically just to use one’s imagination.)

Pascoe’s Stage Direction

After we meet a group of young Venetian mercenary soldiers, one of their captains, Gennaro (Michael Fabiano), sits down to get some rest. The sleeping Gennaro is watched by a woman who holds a Carnival mask and admires how handsome he is. It is, of course, Lucrezia Borgia (Renee Fleming), who has invested quite a lot of time and resources finally to identify a son whom she was forced by her Borgia family to give away at birth.

[Below: Lucrezia Borgia (Renee Fleming) admires her sleeping son Gennaro (Michael Fabiano), whom she has finally found after having had to give him up at birth; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

She sings an elegaic aria, Come e bello, whose main melody Lucrezia sings, with increasing elaboration three times. I listened very carefully to Fleming, this second time around, and considered the aria beautifully sung and appropriately acted.

(At least one reviewer argued that Fleming was insufficiently animated and was underplaying the part, but here calmness seems exactly the right response for the character’s motivation. She, after all, does not want to attract attention to herself. I don’t believe that Stanislavsky himself would have had her doing anything else.)

In fact, I found Pascoe’s staging imaginative and appropriate throughout, undeserving of one reviewer’s use of the pejorative term “park and bark” (sprinkled into a generally favorable review) to describe a particular image that might have seemed to that person momentarily too static. In fact, I would choose such terms as “fast-paced” and “vigorous” to describe most of the staging.

I found that the staging abounds in insights that I believe illuminate the plot. I thought having Alfonso strike Lucrezia when he discovers that Gennaro, whose murder Alfonso believed he had effected, can be seen escaping with Lucrezia’s help. Suggesting that a person with such a dark reputation as Lucrezia is herself the victim of the Duke’s cruelty, helps set up the denouement of Lucrezia’ suicide, after she realizes that she was the agent that destroyed her son that had become her obsession.

I previously expressed the belief that Pascoe’s decision to establish an overtly gay romance between Captain Gennaro and his fellow soldier, Maffio Orsini, was a brilliant stroke. This made explicable the decision of Gennaro, a marked man, to tarry with fatal consequences in Ferrara for one additional night.

(However, that point caused a reviewer to feel that Pascoe had not given sufficient attention to the emotional issues raised by gay relationships in the military, thereby somehow trivializing the message about Captain Gennaro and his lover. To me, that critique of the staging went way beyond the material with which Pascoe was dealing or what he was trying to do. But if one took the reviewer’s charge seriously, one might offer Gennaro’s decision to risk his life to stay with Orsini, and then to die with him when it was apparent he did not have enough antidote to save him as evidence of genuine emotional depth in their relationship.)

Victor Hugo, Gaetano Donizetti, Felice Romani and HBO

One of the print reviewers found fault with the plot, suggesting whimsically (I think) that had Home Box Office existed in 1830s Italy, that the plot would have been more to that reviewer’s taste. Perhaps not. Donizetti and his librettist, Romani, were pushing the envelope on what could be shown on the operatic stage, in the heavily censored theaters of Italy, when they based an opera on Lucrece Borgia, Victor Hugo’s drame historique. And, Hugo, of course, was himself pushing the envelope on what could be shown in Parisian theater.

Both play and opera were considered Revolutionary in their day, and Hugo and Donizetti were both agents who used their fame to expand what could be seen and done in theaters. If anything, Home Box Office (which, of course, is not a party to this controversy) should regard  both the French dramatist and the Italian composer as forbears.

[Below: Gennaro (Michael Fabiano, center left) confronts Gubetta (Igor Vieira, center, masked) as Maffio Orsini (Elizabeth DeShong, center right) looks on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

“Lucrezia Borgia”, I believe, still resonates with audiences. I first saw it performed by one of its 20th century champions, Beverly Sills, with Gaetano Scano (a felicitous name for a Donizetti tenor), Suzanne Marsee and Richard Fredricks in Los Angeles in 1975. My enthusiasm for the opera has never diminished.

I’m proud of Renee Fleming for championing the opera in the 21st century, and for enlisting John Pascoe, Placido Domingo and the Washington National Opera in creating the new production. I’m proud also that the San Francisco Opera used this production, not only as the vehicle for re-establishing the company’s ties with Ms Fleming, but for mounting a world class musical performance of an historically important, rewarding opera.