SFO Opera's "Lucrezia Borgia": Name Your Poison

Opera at the Cinema: "Lucrezia Borgia"
at Coolidge Corner Theater, Brookline

Michael Fabiano as Gennaro in "Lucrezia Borgia"
(photo: San Francisco Opera)

Coolidge Corner Theater's Opera at the Cinema series has as its current offering a rarely produced bel canto opera by Donizetti, “Lucrezia Borgia”, one of history’s more infamous pharmacists. Less popular than the composer’s “Elisir d’Amore” or “Lucia di Lammermoor”, this is nonetheless filled with fine music. This performance, from San Francisco Opera, featured Renée Fleming in the title role, heading a cast of male singers (and one female in a “pants” role). Since the opera isn’t that familiar to most opera lovers, and given the libretto’s typical bel canto absurdities, a brief synopsis may be in order.

The story begins in Venice with a discussion among Gennaro (Michael Fabiano) and his friends, including his dearest friend, Maffio Orsini (Elizabeth Deshong), about their plans to travel to Ferrara to the home of the Duke Alfonso D’Este (Vitalij Kowaljow) and his wife Lucrezia Borgia (René e Fleming). Gennaro then wanders off and falls asleep, as his friends depart. A mysterious masked woman arrives, awakening him with a kiss. Gennaro instantly declares his love for her, as well as the mother he never knew. (Little does he know that Lucrezia herself is his long-lost mother). His friends return, recognize Lucrezia, and denounce her crimes, to his horror. Later, in Ferrara, Duke Alfonso, believing Gennaro to be his wife’s lover, plots his murder with his servant Rustighello (Daniel Montenegro). When Gennaro defaces the family crest, the Duke orders him put to death, and gives him poisoned wine. Lucrezia arrives with an antidote to save him. Still later, Gennaro and his friends are at a palace party where Gennaro pledges his love for Orsini. Lucrezia gives them all poison for insulting their crest, unaware that Gennaro is one of them. As the others fall dead, Gennaro approaches her with a dagger, but she stops him when she reveals he is not only a Borgia, but her son. She again offers him an antidote, but he refuses now, wishing to join his friends in death, which he does. Lucrezia, mourning her son’s death, falls dead herself (in this version, by stabbing herself).

While bel canto singing isn’t Fleming’s forte, as she herself admits, (and may explain why one of Lucrezia’s more challenging arias, “Tranquillo ei posa…Com’è bello!”, was cut) she does a very creditable job, managing to portray some real emotion. Fabiano matches her with a lovely tenor voice, and is more than sufficiently photogenic for these days of televised opera. Deshong, though diminutive in stature, has a firm and effective mezzo of her own, especially in Orsini’s last act “drinking song.” Montenegro cut another dashing figure and sang quite solidly. Good as these all were, however, the vocal hit of the production was Kowaljow, with a superb sound and commanding presence. The rest of the characters included Jeppo Liverotto (Christopher Jackson), Oloferno Vitellozzo (Brian Jagde), Apostolo Gazello (Austin Kness), Astolfo (Ryan Kuster), Ascanio Petrucci (Ao Li) and Gubetta (Igor Vieira). The performance was very well conducted by Riccardo Frizza, with fine direction and production design by John Pascoe (though dimly lit); his costume design was especially intricate and impressive. The direction of the chorus (mostly male) by Ian Robertson was precise throughout the performance.

This was a great opportunity to see such an infrequently attempted composition. It was screened at the magnificently restored Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, an art deco gem itself worth the visit. Check theater listings (and this venue) for announcements of future screenings of “Opera at the Cinema".

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