sun 14/04/2024

Lucrezia Borgia, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Lucrezia Borgia, English National Opera

Lucrezia Borgia, English National Opera

Figgis adrift amid Donizetti's rum-te-tums

Oedipal tensions: Michael Fabiano as Gennaro, Claire Rutter as LucreziaDonald Cooper

When future historians write the story of 21st-century film, Mike Figgis will play a founding father-like role. Figgis's Timecode (2000) was one of the world's first and most ambitious digital films. I still remember the excitement the day I saw it, the unified screen before me shattering into shards of narrative. This was the first film to sing in four simultaneously cast parts in the manner of a Bach fugue.

Notwithstanding its many faults, it felt like the silver screen's Ring cycle. Last night saw Figgis try his hand at a real Gesamtkunstwerk, Donizetti's rarely heard Lucrezia Borgia (1833). Could he refashion opera as he had once done film? The ENO were dearly hoping so.

When the history books on 21st century film are written, Mike Figgis will play a founding father role. Timecode (2000) was one of the world's first digital movies, a film that sang in four simultaneously cast parts in the manner of a Bach fugue. It was the silver screen's Ring. Last night saw Figgis try his hand at a real Gesamtkunstwerk, Donizetti's rarely heard Lucrezia Borgia (1833). Could he refashion opera as he had once done film? The ENO were dearly hoping so.

At first it seemed like he might. Appearing on the curtain was a boldly jerky Italian documentary on the lives of 15th-century courtesans. It was very subtle, very clever. Were we in fact watching the brutalised childhood of nymphomaniac Lucrezia Borgia or the confessional narratives of Silvio Berlusconi's bunga-bunga girls?

Boundaries were blurred. Expectations were high. Figgis had evoked much in this opening. Surely the curtain would lift on something extraordinary. It did. The wrong music. The overture had been cut and Lucrezia's entry brought forward. I wouldn't have minded - and neither would have Donizetti - if it had added anything but it didn't. Meanwhile on stage, we received little more than a history lesson: scenery from the 1990s, blocking from the 1970s, costume from the back of the period drawer.

Figgis appeared to have ploughed all his imagination (which wan't always the very safest of bets) and attention into the little films. The result was a failure to realise that Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia is a comedy not a tragedy. Listen to the music and you won't fail to notice that, even by the standards of bel canto, the opera's rum-ti-tum count is high and rarely, if ever, disturbed by clouds of orchestral darkness.

The story may read like a taut Freudian thriller, filled with Oedipal tensions as Lucrezia seeks to redeem her mess of a life by bedding her long-lost son, Gennaro, only to find herself resorting to bad habits, murdering Gennaro's five buddies and then Gennaro himself, but the music - and Paul Daniel's cod translation - leads the ear to the land of the Carry On.

The increasingly mixed bag of filmed back-storying preludes (a living recreation of a Bronzino painting being one of the highlights; a classically Figgis bit of gratuitous lesbian action being one of many low points), showing a wronged and therefore fruit-loopy young Lucrezia, kept hinting that we were about to encounter a piercing assault on 15th-century patriarchy. No such luck. Something pointless and rum-ti-tum needed to be said first.

In the second half, set decisions improved. Peter Mumford's lighting stopped having to try to hide how little scenery there was and began to be able to flatter Es Devlin's dinky sets: a gilt chapel, a Ferrara-filled proscenium arch and a Last Supper tableau that frames the fated Gennaro and friends in the final scene. One last film, which shows Lucrezia receiving a forcible infibulation at the hands of some creepy nuns (their heads in tights) and giving up her son, Gennaro, accompanied by a soft, sighing musical prelude, saw Figgis's film-making at its most powerful. So much so that it upstaged the final reveal.

The singing was fine, if safe. Claire Rutter was a powerful, if overly sane, presence in the title role. A delightful flickery tone from Michael Fabiano warmed the cockles. Alastair Miles's was decently Machiavellian as Lucrezia's husband. Elizabeth DeShong's Orsino (usually a travesty role but this time not) was industrious, captivating and clear. Paul Daniel was as clunky in the pit as he was with his pen. The choir was invisible. As, increasingly, seemed the worth of the opera. Rum. Ti. Tum.

Watch Dame Joan Sutherland singing Lucrezia Borgia's final aria in 1972

The story may read like a taut Freudian thriller, but the music leads the ear to the land of the Carry On

Share this article


I for one thoroughly enjoyed this remarkably musically strong evening given added strength with the 4 short films which helpfully gave history and memory to the audience as well as motivation to the characters on stage. The directorial hand on the stage was surprisingly light which allowed the piece to stand on its own merits. The one major 'change' turning the trouser role of Orsini into a female character both altered, for the better, the balance of the otherwise very male characters and allowed Gennaro a creditable sympathetic friend. The lighting was magical, as it has been for most the other recent productions in the house. The reference above to Berlusconi's girls is somewhat topical! The first short film acted as the Overture and therefore it made perfect sense to cut: why have an introduction to the introduction? I don't think a critic can have it both ways by saying the the eponymous lead was portrayed as being overly sane and then complain that the films portrayed some of the depravity for which the Borgias were famed!

Erm, hello, Nick: 'the first short film acted as the Overture and therefore it made perfect sense to cut'. OK, so that's only Donizetti's introduction, and he was no Rossini when it came to curtainraisers, but are we at an opera or a Figgis Gesamtkunstwerk? IS this the kind of interventionism which led to some of Bizet's finest numbers - and every note of Carmen is fine, let's face it - being cut from the Opera North production?

The overture for Lucrezia Borgia is taken from another of Donizetti's works. It contains none of the themes from the opera, so I think it is best for it to be cut.

Discarding an overture, albeit a not very good and borrowed one, on what grounds, An Audience? 'It contains none of the themes from the opera'? Try Mozart's Figaro, Rossini's William Tell for starters. 'Taken from another' work? Rossini's Barber Overture had two previous incarnations. Not that I'm saying this one's up to scratch. Yet although I've yet to see this production, I'd say that a classy film about the Borgias is going to create more discrepancies with the rum-ti-tum and minimal plot than a bland piece of music that will at least create the right sort of expectations.

Thank you Generic for your post. Any revival of any opera must, by its very nature, change what has gone before and reflecting, these days anyway, the director's (mainly) interpretation of the work. In this case, it could be argued, Mike Figgis has gone down that road further then is perhaps usual. However, as opera revivals could be taken as a museum industry (Andrew Porter's memorable phrase of the "Metropolitan Museum of Opera" comes to mind here!) today's zeitgeist (horrid word I know!) must come into play. After all any West End revival of a play or musical re-invents the original so why not opera also? I have not seen the Opera North 'Carmen', strangely one of those pieces that drops down in my estimation each time I hear it, so cannot comment. However, the Adventures in Motion Pictures production 'Carman' using the Shchedrin score, with additions, I hugely enjoyed.

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters