The John Pascoe production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, staged as a vehicle for Renee Fleming, was so thoroughly trashed when it played in Washington a few years ago and again Friday before last when it opened here (in this work’s first appearance at San Francisco Opera) that last Monday I went into its second performance with very low expectations, which may have been a good thing because I found myself enjoying the evening thoroughly.
This is not to say that the production or the opera itself is particularly good, though approached in the right way it is entertaining and very effective. I’m the first person to sneer coldly at people who discuss all opera as if it’s silly inane camp (“but of course the music,” they always simper condescendingly, “is simply gorgeous!”), but if I were a lawyer arguing that case I’d do my best to have Lucrezia ruled inadmissible as evidence. You may well spend a lot of time trying to piece together the haphazard plot, but this is I think the wrong approach. What we have here is not Lulu; it is not even Lucia. What I realized during an early scene in which a suddenly unmasked Lucrezia is confronted with four or five men who take turns announcing which of their relatives she has murdered, while La Lucrezia makes an anguished but exculpatory little backward sweep of her hand, as if to say, “Well, yes, I did poison all those people – but what else was I to do?!?” – what I realized then is that what we have here is a Joan Crawford movie.
I need to point out that I was not one of those jackasses who feel the need to laugh at something other people are taking seriously, in order to show how superior they are to it (and to those taking it seriously). I need to point this out because I despise people who impose their reactions on others during a performance, or who feel the need to assert their superiority to something they’re enjoying (I have no guilty pleasures, at least aesthetically), and I realize I’m coming about as close as I can imagine coming to saying an opera is best enjoyed as camp. It’s just that I realized that if I approached this the way I would something like Le Nozze di Figaro, or some similarly deep and, you know, coherent work, then I would miss the very different pleasures provided.
So I sat silently and in perfect attendance, as did those around me, and perhaps I would have enjoyed myself less if the audience had been more annoying, or if the opera had started at 8:00 rather than 7:30, as I was pretty much done by Act 3: the experience of live theater is so fragile and fraught with peril! – much like life in Renaissance Italy, as portrayed in Lucrezia Borgia. I’m used to such a portrayal in Shakespeare, but it seemed a slightly odd approach for an Italian to take to an era in his country's history that is one of the glories of this world. I kept thinking of Shakespeare because watching Lucrezia was a bit like watching Two Gentlemen of Verona, in that there are situations that are quite enjoyable and satisfactory, unless you know some of the later plays in which similar situations are elevated far beyond the earlier work; I kept thinking of Verdi, in particular Un Ballo in Maschera, and how much more effectively he had treated some similar situations (or something like Macbeth, in which both Shakespeare and Verdi achieved something deep and unified, as Donizetti didn't with his heroine).
As for following the plot, the opera gods forbid that five minutes of stage time be taken from the inevitable drinking song or the chorus’s umpteenth repetition of such relevant sentiments as “Venice is awfully nice!” or “We like to party!” in order to clarify such questions as why young soldier Gennaro (tenor Michael Fabiano) was raised by a fisherman instead of his mother Lucrezia, why he has never been told that she is his mother, why she never tells him she is his mother when she runs across him in Venice (allowing him instead to proclaim himself in love with her, and not in a brunch-and-corsage-on-the-second-Sunday-in-May way, either), or – and this is the question that nagged at me the most – why she simply doesn’t tell her husband Duke Alfonso (Vitalij Kowaljow) that Gennaro is not her lover but her son, when such information could save Gennaro’s life, which seems to be her general goal. Yes, I can assume it’s a shocking or shameful secret, but what’s the point (other than providing a smashing final curtain, of course) of announcing it only when it is most obviously way too late?
You see that making sense of the plot is not the way to go here. You talk about tabloid operas – this is the mother of them all, steeped in gossip so sordid and scandalous it was whispered down the generations. Lucrezia Borgia is like Salome without the philosophical underpinnings. You can feel Donizetti straining to fit this wild, shocking Romantic-movement fantasia into the theatrical restrictions of the early nineteenth-century Italian stage, and not quite succeeding. It’s all about what is most vivid and sensational and depraved from moment to moment, and if that means a certain overall incoherence, or a lack of such niceties as plausible characterization, then so be it.
It’s all about the moment, and isn’t that where live theater exists, only in the vanishing moment? But I don’t want to make it sound like a philosophical exercise, or too aesthetic and rarefied, as if you were reading Mallarme or holding an opal up to the sun to watch it flash its dazzling colors; what watching Lucrezia is like is standing in the supermarket check-out line and reading contradictory tabloid headlines about the same star (the most relevant star in this case would be Angelina Jolie) and realizing that in that universe there is no contradiction.
The heroine is both a powerful, vindictive woman and a heart-broken mother; there are intimations of betrayal and lurid crimes of all sort; the plot is convoluted and elliptical to the point of incomprehensibility; and of course it’s all very noir, not only in style, but quite literally – whether a scene takes place in a secret dungeon or in a public square during what was later, to my great surprise, announced as “broad daylight,” the stage is plunged in unrelenting night – I might as well enter into the extravagant spirit of the thing and call it Cimmerian gloom. I assume this is a deliberate, if slightly puzzling, artistic choice, and not an attempt by the Opera company to cut down on its no-doubt expensive utility bills, but it sure doesn’t help when you’re trying to figure out which interchangeable minor courtier is doing what to another interchangeable minor courtier.
But, again, legibility is not the point. Given this approach, it was easy to enjoy the show without worrying too much about why the courtiers were occasionally elaborately choreographed and why they sometimes moved like regular human beings; or why people kept giving the Nazi salute (I don’t care if this salute was customary in Renaissance Italy; if you put it on stage in 21st-century America, it reads as a Hitler reference); or why – well, why bother listing? I stopped dwelling on such things. I even consented to pretend that the leather-clad jailer desultorily whipping a thin nervous dancer as the dungeon scene opened was the height (or depth) of titillating depravity, even though the newspaper that morning had far more explicit photos and descriptions from the previous weekend’s Folsom Street Fair (a major San Francisco tourist attraction), complete with a report from a nice middle-aged lady visitor that she hadn’t seen much like this up in Eugene, Oregon. The signifiers of depravity have their iconic functions.
The homoeroticism was not limited to leather-clad jailers. In Act 3 Gennaro, after spending the first two acts falling in love or at least horniness at first sight with beautiful women (even if they turned out to be his mother), was suddenly smooching in the piazza with his compatriot Maffio Orsini (mezzo Elizabeth DeShong). Usually this sort of shoe-horned same-sexiness irritates me, because you can tell the directors feel smug about how “honest” they are (when what they’re really doing is messing up the psychological relationships among the characters) and how “bold” they are (when instead they are simplistically reducing all relationships among men to purely sexual ones). But I entered into the anything-goes spirit of sensationalism so fully that when I realized that Orsini was not Gennaro’s pageboy, as I had initially thought (DeShong is quite short and youthful-looking, and her part kept reminding me of Oscar in Ballo, hence my pageboy assumption), I was mostly disappointed that the sulfurous whiff of pedophilia wasn’t adding to the heady tabloid brew.
I also loved the much-mocked costumes, which I found sumptuous, lurid, and slightly ridiculous, and therefore perfectly suited to the staging. It makes sense in the terms of this production that Lucrezia would visit her husband’s dungeon wearing a glam chiffon-and-shimmer ballgown in russet and green-gold, with her hair done up in a Dairy Queen swirl which was slightly off-center, no doubt to express inner anguish. In the grand finale, she bursts into the party room like the Red Death, wearing black tights and an elegantly cut (or hammered) silver breastplate, her hair now done in a severe and punitive shag, looking totally ready for Joan of Arc night at the dance club. She enters with sword grandly drawn, which may seem quite literally like overkill, as she has already poisoned the drinks of everyone in the room, but it is undeniably a kick-ass entry, and who am I to deny a diva her accessories in the name of some dramatic or logical principles that clearly had been set aside when the curtain first ascended?
Meanwhile Gennaro is rocking a pair of tights with broad vertical stripes in muted and blended shades of green – nothing too bright or primary, which is good because such shades really don’t work for the portrayal of overripe decadence, which is why I feel designers of Salome should reach for olive-green and purple and not crimson – topped by a golden pec-baring tunic perfectly suited for watching the tenor’s chest rise and fall as his last aria pours forth in the sweet anguish of death. I don’t usually react this way to costumes, but in this case I really had some sartorial envy: I thought, My God, if I were a Renaissance mercenary who smooched boys in the alley and fell in love with his own Mom, that is exactly what I would want to wear! My own costume of black pants and long-sleeved black T-shirt (long sleeves: the secret of elegance, or at least presentability!) seemed in comparison like a utilitarian failure to truly live.
I have no idea how the costumes read farther back in the barn that is the War Memorial Opera House. As I said, the lighting was notably dim throughout.
This was all a reminder that the pleasures of the opera house are not only musical. As for the actual musical pleasures . . . well, that was a mixed bag, though Donizetti had certainly supplied some promising raw materials. I have seen Carol Vanness carry roles that weren’t really suited to her through sheer force of personality; if Fleming didn't quite achieve that, seeming more disengaged, more a visiting celebrity than an engine of the story, well . . . as I mentioned earlier: Joan Crawford. Under the circumstances it didn’t seem entirely unsuitable for her to stand there smiling vaguely amid the destruction. She is more engaged and convincing in some aspects of the part than others – she’s much better at the suffering mother than the tempestuous temptress. Vocally some parts were rougher than others, but then there were moments of astonishing beauty, in particular one long sustained anguished note as her Act 1 unmaskers accuse her to her son, which may have been one of the most memorable purely vocal moments I’ve experienced recently in the opera house.
Clearly Fleming was the selling-point of the evening (quite literally; she’s been ubiquitous in the Opera’s marketing materials, and we were urged to subscribe before her appearances sold out), but on the whole the other singers provided more consistent pleasures; in particular Michael Fabiano made an excellent debut as Gennaro, with a strong and flexible voice that was always pleasing, and Vitalij Kowaljow was a thunderous and authoritative Alfonso.
As I said, I enjoyed my evening thoroughly, though I understand why the performances have gotten mixed and often negative reactions. The audience the night I went seemed generally quite enthusiastic, culminating in the now perhaps inevitable standing ovation. But when it came to that – well, so soon after we all stood for the SF Symphony’s epic and blazing Mahler 3, it just didn’t seem right to me to give the same tribute to the lurid pleasures of Lucrezia Borgia. But I’m not going to pretend I didn’t enjoy it all quite a lot, and I’m not going to sneer at what I genuinely enjoyed.