There are few doubts that Renee Fleming's Lucrezia does not correspond to what we would expect from a bel canto role. And yet, I think this Lucrezia Borgia at the War Memorial Opera House – the first time this work is ever staged at the San Francisco Opera – has many elements of success, including Fleming's much-disparaged approach to bel canto.
This Washington National Opera production (directed and designed by John Pascoa) takes place in claustrophobic spaces that expand in height and width: massive fifty-foot walls define the space, both in the outdoor and in the indoor scenes. Shiny and carnivalesque costumes, designed by Pascoa himself, create an uncanny counterpoint with the dark surrounding. While inspired by a majestic Renaissance style, costumes have a grotesque flavour redolent of Fellinian imagery. Duke Alfonso's leather dress reminded me of Wotan in recent Ring's productions – such as Francesca Zambello's and, interestingly, Guy Cassiers's production at La Scala, in which Vitalij Kowaljow (Alfonso) himself featured. Lucrezia's Brunnhilde-like armour for the last act reinforced my suggestion. Hair styling is remarkable too, in particular Lucrezia's pearl-woven hair, later replaced by a spiky coiffure, as is Gennaro's.
Choreography by Lawrence Pech is noteworthy. The way in which the soldiers populate the scene contributes to the establishment of a parodic – and thus more disturbing – militarized atmosphere.
The opening scene featured a dark space with Lucrezia alone under a spotlight. As the scene slowly brightened up to only a semi-obscurity, the audience could see people fighting in slow motion behind her. As she tiredly intimated them to stop, they followed her order. This directorial gesture emphasised her solitude and her ambiguous figure that the opera's narrative does not resolve.
Fleming's Lucrezia monopolizes the first act, for good or bad. In her interview with Roger Pines (from the programme notes), Fleming credits bel canto – together with Mozart – as one of her "voice teachers," and she talks about the learning and creative process that underscores the building of her bel canto roles. Her more famous outings in this territory have included Armida, La sonnambula, and Il pirata. Fleming, then, is well aware of the difficulties that she faces when she approaches this repertoire.
While I do agree with those who reckon that these operas seem not to be suited for her voice, I think that with Fleming's Lucrezia one can still see the huge artistry of which she is capable. In fact, listening to her Lucrezia is a frustrating experience because one recognizes the amount of talent on stage – in her stage persona, in the expressive nuances – but this talent cannot express itself fully because of the limitations of her technique, especially in the coloratura passages. Nonetheless, what I appreciated was her ability to portray a distressed and divided character through an intelligent use of dynamics – her long pianissimos were breathtaking.
Michael Fabiano was a solid, bright and impetuous Gennaro. He didn't fully convince me at first, as his voice seemed to lack resonance. Yet, as he warmed up, he proved to be a great interpreter of this repertoire, both in his singing and in his acting.
The most gratifying performance was that of Vitalij Kowaljow as Duke Alfonso. Having heard him as a powerful and gloomy Wotan from La Scala's Walküre, I didn't imagine him to be so at ease in a bel canto role. As soon as he started singing, it was clear that he was going to be the highlight of the evening.
Because of the vocal characteristics of the three protagonists, Act II, revolving almost solely on them, was for me the climax of this Lucrezia. Fleming, Fabiano and Kowaljow created a superb harmony through their different approaches. They brought to the fore the full potential of Donizetti's score, at a point of the narrative in which each one is fatally arguing for and believing in opposite outcomes.
Elizabeth DeShong as Orsini was marvellous. Her mezzo-soprano timbre is dark and dense, and gave puissance and solidity to a role that lacks a well-rounded characterization in the opera. Even at the moments when she was joining with the chorus, her timbre was audible and at the same time it melted harmoniously. Her duet with best-friend Gennaro was truly moving.
The orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Frizza, sounded always incisive and precise. I missed the first night performance and, from reading the reviews, I understood that there had been problems in the coordination between stage and pit. By the third night performance, these luckily seemed to have been resolved. Instead, what I noticed was a singular approach to the score. In this regard, Frizza's interpretation interestingly echoed Fleming's unorthodox style. Sudden changes of tempo struck me as unexpected. Other choices emphasized the drama in the narrative. For instance, the orchestra stood silent for what it felt like a long pause before the final cry "Era desso," enhancing a sense of tragedy and despair, hinting at Lucrezia's resolution to end her life - by stabbing herself in the chest, in this particular production.
Photos credits: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera