Gaetano Donizetti achieved lasting fame as one of Italy's greatest nineteenth-century composers when his opera Anna Bolena was produced in Milan during December of 1830. Certainly no 'overnight success', he had already been composing operatic works for nearly fifteen years, and by 1826 at age 29, had entered an extremely prolific period. Able to compose long stretches of music at an extremely rapid pace (with highly variable results), Donizetti completed three or four entire operas per year until 1843 when he became too ill to continue.
While several of his operas such as Lucia di Lammermoor have retained unquestionable popularity, many of his darkly dramatic opera seria have appeared only intermittently over the years since his death in 1848. Lucrezia Borgia is one such example. Based on a contemporaneous stage play by Victor Hugo, and distilled by the esteemed librettist Felice Romani, Donizetti's tale of the poisoning murderess Lucrezia Borgia had a stormy beginning, but after some revision, went on to garner a respectably large number of performances. With an ideal title role for a vivid actress and gifted vocal technician, Lucrezia attracted a long list of venerable prima donnas and helped to cement Donizetti's reputations as both a dramatist and as a composer of beautiful, heart-felt melodies.
In modern times, Lucrezia began to regain a foothold in the active repertoire through performances in the 1960s and '70s by such luminaries as Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, and especially Montserrat Caballe, who stunned a packed Carnegie Hall with her performance in concert in 1965. Since then, many important singers have perpetuated interest in this dramatic and entertaining opera, giving the public a chance to evaluate the paradoxical story of a woman at once sympathetic and repulsive. Curiously, for an opera so full of dramatic possibilities and well-crafted tunes, there have been only two studio recordings: Caballe, Kraus, Verrett, and Flagello, under Perlea, and Sutherland, Aragall, Horne, and Wixell, under Bonynge. Many live performances have circulated commercially (including the aforementioned, electrifying performance with Caballe at Carnegie), and the most recent is this new issue from Naxos, featuring Greek soprano Dimitra Theodossiou. Unfortunately, this recording comes up short on every count, and should only be considered by die-hard fans of Theodossiou and/or those seeking a budget price.
Ironically, the notes to the recording include the following statement in a discussion of the premiere performance under Donizetti's direction in 1833: '[Leading soprano] Méric-Lalande was anyway sadly past her vocal prime; the leading tenor, Francesco Pedrazzi, did not fully find favor either, though the baritone, Luciano Mariani, and mezzo, Marietta Brambilla, were more generously received.' By curious coincidence, the same statement (with a change of names) would apply to this new recording, taken live from the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo in 2007. By far the biggest disappointment is Theodossiou as Lucrezia. Beginning around ten years ago, the Greek diva showed much promise in major bel canto roles like Norma and Anna Bolena, but relentless pursuit of the dramatic coloratura repertoire has apparently taken a heavy toll on her voice. As recorded here, she sounds tentative, wobbly, poorly tuned, and dramatically adrift. Throughout the opera, she pushes and pulls Donizetti's rhythms to the point where all momentum is lost and there remains little or no shape to the vocal lines. It sounds as though she cannot rely on her voice to respond and so she consistently drags behind the beat, distorting every scene in which she appears. She also has significant problems with intonation and offers little insight into the character. Her inability to depict the title character with any vividness of characterization and absolute failure to surmount the vocal challenges leaves a gaping dramatic hole in the center of the opera.
Given that the remaining singers are much lesser known, Theodossiou might have been the star attraction for this production, and it's unfortunate that she has so little to offer. Hardly an improvement is tenor Roberto de Basio, who struggles his way through the opera, giving us an out of tune, half-crooned Gennaro. He occasionally fills out Donizetti's music with a firm tone and emotional ardency, but these moments are few. The bass-baritone Enrico Giuseppe Iori is much better, and sings with excellent line, firm rhythm, solid intonation, and colorful characterization. In one of the great confrontations in all of bel canto opera, his character – Don Alfonso – duels with Lucrezia in a demanding 'argument' over the fate of Gennaro. Iori easily outshines Theodossiou here, menacing her with dark tone and snarling delivery. Also impressive is mezzo-soprano Nidia Palacios as Gennaro's friend en travesti, Maffio Orsini. Though she doesn't possess a first-class voice, Palacios seems to have a solid understanding of Donizetti's musical flow and she brings a characterful flair to Orsini that enlivens her several scenes with Gennaro. Without the considerable efforts of Iori and Palacios, this would have been a grim evening at the opera house.
Tiziano Severini, a conductor I have appreciated elsewhere, directs a leaden performance – perhaps hindered in part by Theodossiou's total reluctance to follow his baton. The orchestra and chorus of the 'Bergamo Musica Festival Gaetano Donizetti' are adequate, providing anonymous support for the generally dismal proceedings. Overall, this performance comes off as a mediocre, provincial attempt to mount an opera that requires a great deal more in terms of vocal talent and understanding of Donizettian style in order to succeed. A video recording was also made of this production and has been issued on DVD. I own it, but will certainly skip it, based on the audio-only version. For those interested in this excellent opera, the Caballe set (RCA) is the best choice of the studio recordings. On DVD, Sutherland and Kraus sing very well, but temperamentally, Lucrezia is far beyond Sutherland's limited acting skills. Another version, starring Edita Gruberova (to be reviewed on MusicalCriticism.com shortly) gives a much better overall representation of the opera, despite a somewhat controversial production. Naxos is a valued classical recording label, but unfortunately, this Lucrezia Borgia doesn't measure up to their highest standard.