English National Opera's history of success in staging the bel canto repertoire is dealt no favours whatsoever with their new production of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. The company that once delivered world-class performances from Rosalind Plowright and Janet Baker in a now-famous production of the same composer's Mary Stuart comes nowhere near the standard of theatre or music it ought to be offering, though the singing is never less than competent.
In engaging the much-admired film director Mike Figgis to guide the production, ENO must have thought they investing in something cutting-edge – especially since the performance on 23 February will become the first live opera to be broadcast in a 3D 'quadcast: live on Sky Arts 2, Sky 3D, into cinemas in 3D and onto a 'behind-the-scenes' channel controlled by Figgis. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the results are disappointing.
Figgis's approach to the piece is to try to illuminate the real-life experiences of Lucrezia Borgia that hide behind Donizetti's character by interspersing the opera's scenes with contextualising films about her biography and the society in which she lived. It's not a bad idea on paper, especially since the opera itself is comparatively short (just over a couple of hours of music). But there's the problem: Donizetti's primary concern was to adapt the story to suit the operatic conventions with which he was (somewhat liberally) playing in this piece, and has nothing to do with depicting history in a challenging way. (The censors saw to it that Lucrezia's incestuous relationship with her half-brother was removed from Romani's adaptation of Victor Hugo's play, for instance.)
Figgis tries to beef it out by telling us in the first film, for instance, about the punishments meted out to courtesans in the fifteenth century (gang-rape by 31 or 79 men, and a slashed face to prevent the woman from continuing as a courtesan). Such information is not only gratuitous and sickening, but also serves to trivialise the opera completely – because the curtain goes up on the opera's opening scene, which is staged in the manner of a static concert performance.
The undoubted sensuality of Figgis's filmic style (I'm talking about the technique and colours, not the softcore imagery) is contrasted with a complete absence of any theatrical instinct: the chorus stands in a semi-circle at the back of the stage, and the principals line up at the front, only rarely engaging with one another or moving around. The scene has been moved around, if my reading of the score is correct: part of the prelude is used in the (pre-recorded) soundtrack to the first film, then the movie screen lifts upward to reveal Lucrezia, who sings her first line of recitative, rather than the festivities and Orsini's (Figgis also makes this travesty role back into a female character in his production, without any noteworthy effect.) racconto, which now comes second. It's coming to something when a leading opera house plays recorded music to an audience while the orchestra sits doing nothing in the pit, and moving the numbers around to delay the opening chorus and promote a recitative passage seemed something akin to sitting down on a joke.
Es Devlin's designs were disappointing, especially coming from so talented an artist: the prologue was staged with just a tree to the right of the stage, and though things got less Spartan as the evening wore on, this was hardly compelling theatre. It's amazing how tame everything in the opera seemed in the context of arty, graphic films; Lucrezia stood around looking harmless, and even Brigitte Reiffenstuel's beautiful period costumes couldn't lend the experience gravitas.
It didn't help, I think, that conductor Paul Daniel took such a lightweight view of the score, and that he was put in charge of the translation, which was similarly bland. Combined with a lack of purpose on stage, the thinness of textures and clumsy verse made the opera seem like third-rate G&S at times. This is not an opera in which the audience should be tittering with laughter, but I'm afraid this happened at several points. The sumptuousness, urgency and colours in the music, which ought to have complemented the richness of Figgis's cinematic palette, were largely lacking.
On the plus side, Daniel's conducting was very tight, well controlled and sensitive to the singers, who clearly loved the opportunity simply to stand and do what they do best. There was no battling with the orchestra, either in speed or volume. That said, it meant that the voices were everything, and in spite of wanting to cheer for the largely British cast, I can't deny that they had a tendency to seem a little provincial by the side of, say, the singers on the classic Sutherland-Bonynge recording of the opera. For instance, Claire Rutter gave an impressively secure account of the title role, but it wasn't particularly distinctive or expressive. Her achievement shouldn't be dismissed, inasmuch as the role is hugely demanding and she acquitted herself admirably, but I longed for a little more Italianate beauty in the tone. As her husband, Alfonso d'Este, Alastair Miles was similarly secure and competent but lacked the bravura quality in his dispatching of the coloratura. It was an impressive performance, too, from Michael Fabiano as Gennaro, but even he seemed pushed to his limits at the top of the voice; he did, however, have the bel canto style that some of the other members of the ensemble cast were lacking. In all honesty, I think they're all capable of better and did their best under the circumstances.
Overall, it's a shame that this rare outing for such an innovative and interesting piece isn't more convincing, either musically or dramatically. More a bore than a Borgia, this Lucrezia does neither Donizetti nor ENO justice.
Photo credits: Stephen Cummiskey