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Lucrezia Borgia--WYSWIG? Not!

Recently-old tags like babelicious, studly, and racy are the words that come to the Dresser's tongue about John Pascoe's new production of Lucrezia Borgia, a bel canto opera that first premiered in 1833 by composer Gaetano Donizetti with a libretto by Felice Romani based on Victor Hugo's play by the same name. On November 1, 2008, the Dresser attended Washington National Opera's packed opening night performance with Plácido Domingo conducting.

The story involves a ruthless, beautiful woman who encounters her grown up illegitimate son and thinks he could redeem all her evil doings. The trouble is her jealous husband believes this young man is his wife's lover and therefore wants the other man dead.Renee Fleming as Lucrezia_Act II_credit Karin Cooper.jpg


In the starring role, Renée Fleming made a spectacular WNO singing debut though not because she is a master or mistress of the challenges presented by bel canto. With her décolleté and not-quite-spiky pixie haircut that is a new look not matching her publicity shots for this show, she proved to be the sexually alluring blonde even a lost son would rise or fall for. And initially Gennaro, Lucrezia's unacknowledged son, could tentpole over the magically babelicious woman who wakes him from a nap al fresco with a kiss.

Vittorio Grigolo as Gennaro_Lucrezia Borgia_credit Karin Cooper.jpgBefore you, Dear Reader, cry not, the Dresser must hurry on to say that although the spiky-haired blond, dishy, and full-throated tenor Vittorio Grigolo playing Gennaro (and you ask how is it possible with the same hairdresser that no one told him about Lucrezia, the Hottie?) was aroused by his poisonous mother, he really had the hots for his sword buddy Maffio Orsini. Whoa, Dude! Here's where things got heated up and were sooo not what they appeared.


Lusty mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich in a pants role plays Maffio Orsini. When Gennaro and Maffio kiss passionately, the Dresser lit up like a Vegas slot machine when all the lights and horns flash and blare. What exactly was happening on stage? That excellent young tenor Vittorio Grigolo (reputed to carry Pavarotti's torch sang the role of Rodolfo in the 2007 WNO production of La bohème), who surely most women and some men in the Kennedy Center were panting for, was kissing who? Oh, mezzo Kate Aldrich--a guy kissing a gal--but No! This was Gennaro kissing his male friend Maffio. Forget incest between two pieces of ear-and-eye candy, in this case, same-sex interaction was much more racy because it was so confusing.Grigolo, Aldrich_Lucrezia Borgia_credit Karin Cooper.jpg


And what happens when the boys party on? Well, Mistress Borgia, whose name Gennaro defiles by kicking off the "B" from "Borgia" which was mounted on a family monument, shows up looking for revenge at the Negroni palace for what is, in fact, an "orgia" (Italian for orgy). Wearing a suit of armor that mirrors her son's, she suspects the culprit is one of Gennaro's friends. Surprise! All the men who are friends of Maffio and Gennaro have been poisoned by the wine and ditto the lover boys. Gennaro goes after Lucrezia with a sword, but stops when she reveals that she is his mother. This is Gennaro's second time around at being poisoned that day by his mom's lethal wine. He knows Lucrezia can save him, but he refuses the antidote because she doesn't have enough to save Maffio.

Could it be that director, set-and-costume designer John Pascoe has given everyone in the audience something to rise to his or her feet for? In Washington, DC, the Dresser thinks that all too often audiences grant standing ovations to reasonable productions--or does this happen because people are anxious to dash out the door or unable to see the assembled full cast if they remain seated? Well, nonetheless, here was a little produced melodramatic opera where most of the music seems overly cheerful considering the number of people poisoned and the seamy sexual goings on. What the production had going in its favor were world-class singers in the major roles (the Dresser also appreciated the commanding bass Ruggero Raimondi as Duke Alfonso, Lucrezia's husband), handsome sets with lots of stony hard edges in keeping with the characters, and characters with surprising sex appeal. Raimondi, Fleming_Lucrezia_credit Karin Cooper.jpgThe language of Wayne's World aside, the Dresser found the production fascinating, but not because she loved the music or the story.

In her poem "Sappho's Voice," Gray Jacobik explores the contours of voice in the "perfect creature" "formed for poetry's sake"--that being Sappho. What John Pascoe and Renée Fleming have done with the character of Lucrezia Borgia is softened her sharp edges so that the audience feels sympathetic despite her vileness. Fleming does this largely with how she controls her voice, but also Donizetti's upbeat music deserves credit for Lucrezia's ability to countermand her detrimental behavior. Pascoe has set up an curious study of human behavior.


I love the traffic of percussives in her voice,
her susurrations, her fricatives, the wave slaps
and ululations that run counterpoint, polyphonous

syllables that lift to words that run to sentences
so dazzling in intonation, one thinks of angels
with silver tablets on their silver laps composing

under olive trees in the Mediterranean
of the soul's true home. Well, she is a perfect
creature, a criatura, formed for poetry's sake,

so one ought to expect her voice to spill
across her lips as fluidly as water slips across
a lip of fountain stone or drips from the tips

of olive leaves after summer storms. I would
lick each drop, each word as it slips, filling
my spirit with the sound of her good sense.

Can grace turn on a voice, the way a body turns,
grace and the body in a kind of auditory spin,
or spinning flight that makes sound waves its sky?

Her voice leaps with light turned back upon itself,
light turning to sound then back to light;
now desire, now the mind's surrender to desire.

Gray Jacobik
from The Double Task

Copyright © 1998 by Gray Jacobik

Photos by Karin Cooper


Comments (3)

The poem at the end of Alenier's essay is always a contribution to the piece.GRACE

Susan Absher:

I really enjoyed Ms. Alenier's review of Lucrezia Borgia. I look forward to seeing this production and remembering her reaction to the director's interpretation of the scenes and characterizations.

John Suroweicki:

Good choice using Gray's poem.

Only in Connecticut do poets have the nerve
to use words like susurrations and fricative.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 4, 2008 10:27 AM.

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