Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, his 30th opera, is based on Victor Hugo's play of the same name, and had its premiere at La Scala in 1833. It features three main characters: Lucrezia Borgia herself, Gennaro the tragic hero (tenor) who, unbeknownst to all but Lucrezia, is her son, and Maffio Orsini, Gennaro's very, very, close friend who: tellingly?: is sung by a contralto.
The opera features a particularly unbelievable story based on unlikely premises which steer the protagonists into dramatic situations that bear a rather remote resemblance to reality. As per usual with Italian opera of the time, a series of unfortunate events/conspiracies/oaths leaves the dramatis personae in life-and-death scenarios where one or more of them die only to turn out to have been the murderer's daughter/son/lover. If you've seen one, you've seen them all. Rigoletto and Il Trovatore, as slightly more sophisticated examples of the same idea, send their regards.
Of course operas like Lucrezia Borgia are not popular for story lines that make a "MacGyver" plot look new and sophisticated. Nor is the repetitive music the draw. For one, every scene takes three times longer than necessary because everything has to be spelled and trice repeated as Donizetti is unwilling or unable to express sufficient emotion in music. He has but three modes: regular, powerful (loud), and 'ominous' (fast string tremolos): it's like painting with just three colors. Being premiered just six years before Verdi's Oberto, it's no coincidence that the music of Lucrezia sounds like very early Verdi.
The primary draw is the achievement of the soprano in the title role for whose vocal high-wire act the opera is one massive vehicle. Everyone in the audience waits through the entire second act for the very last five minutes (taking Orsini's "Il segreto per esse felice" in the passing) when Madamma Borgia has her gratuitous vocal coloratura moment where the singer: given sufficient ability: has the opportunity to burn off a display of vocal fireworks that seems nearly superhuman. The inevitable roaring approval from the voice fetishists (usually from the second tier upward) make the impression of an old fashioned freak-show, albeit in a fancy setting, inevitable.
The Bavarian State Opera has Edita Gruberova for the title role, who is worshiped in the few towns: Munich, Vienna, Zurich: she regularly performs in. The direction of Munich's Lucrezia is by Christof Loy, who was named Director of the Year 2008 by the German magazine Opernwelt and is a frequent collaborator of Gruberova's. Pavol Breslik is Gennaro, Alice Coote Maffio Orsini, and Franco Vassallo Don Alfonso. Supporting Loy are lighting designer Joachim Klein, Barbara Drosihn in charge of costumes, and Henrik Ahr who is responsible for the set. Bertrand de Billy conducts.
Lucrezia Borgia will enjoy four additional winter performances at the National Theater: Feb. 28, March 5, March 10 and March 15. The production will be featured in this summer's Munich Opera Festival, with performances scheduled for July 1 and July 6.
For tickets and information in English, visit Bavarian State Opera.
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All photos by Wilfried H‹sl for Bavarian State Opera.