By Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Plácido Domingo
Director: John Pascoe
Lucrezia Borgia: Renée Fleming
Gennaro: Vittorio Grigolo
Maffio Orsini: Kate Aldrich
Duke Alfonso: Ruggero Raimondi
I can’t imagine anybody going to the opera for the actual story, but Lucrezia Borgia is one of those works requiring an especially strong suspension of disbelief with its cocktail of various forms of love, hate and jealousy, all sprinkled with a bit of poison and antidotes here and there. Luckily, Donizetti's mastery of the melodic enchantment that is bel canto makes it more than just digestible if you would only open your ears wider than your mind. Although this opera does not come close to his masterpiece, Lucia de Lammermoor, he still managed to turn what could have easily been a senselessly violent soap opera into a greatly refined and enjoyable piece. The main character is a woman who, in the right hands, can prove to be much more than a mere caricature, even if it is hard for the audience to have a genuine, full-blown coup de coeur for her. Therefore, the selection of the leading soprano is a particularly daunting task, and it looks like the WNO covered itself pretty well with two outstanding performers: Renee Fleming, who needs no introduction, and Sondra Radvanovsky, who is lesser-known, but just as appreciated among opera buffs.
Last night was Renée Fleming’s night, literally, but she had to share the crowd’s adoration with quite a few remarkable colleagues. The young Italian tenor, Vittorio Grigolo, who dazzled Washington last year in La Bohème, exhibited loud and clear evidence that he is far from being a flash-in-the-pan, his range and presence constantly reaching new heights. Looking more like Billy Idol (As my friend Jennifer justly pointed out) that a Venetian soldier, he gave a heartfelt and energetic performance that makes one feel fully secure about his professional future. All we can wish him, really, is a career of the length and prestige of his fellow countryman, the bass Ruggero Raimondi, whom I was overjoyed to finally hear live. He did not disappoint, and was absolutely mesmerizing as Alfonso, Lucrezia's jealous and cruel husband. A special mention should also be made of Kate Aldrich, the young mezzo-soprano who filled the masculine shoes of Maffio Orsini’s with inspired acting and singing. Last but not least, it has been very nice to see the young Yingxi Zhang, a Domingo-Cafritz alum, confidently develop his craft in increasingly bigger and more challenging parts.
But the full house was there for “the people’s diva”, and Renée Fleming offered a powerful, fairly balanced portrayal of her darkly tragic heroine. Her singing was full, occasionally exceptional, more particularly in the duos with her long-lost son and husband. She obviously cared for her character and presented her not just as the beautiful killer everybody loves to “abhor”, but also as a conflicted woman desperately yearning to experience this most human of conditions that is motherly love. Solidly supported, she was able to convey all the possible nuances of Lucrezia’s complex story and nature.
The sets and costumes were quite a wide array of things, some of them working better than others. Renée Fleming’s luscious dresses gave way to a perplexing dominatrix outfit for the last scene, and her short hairdo made her seem ready for a mano-a-mano battle rather than merely poisoning the revelers. Ruggerio Raimondi’s black leather coat and pants, however, were the perfect finishing touch for his sinister all-black look. The sets and visuals were ranging from some non-descript exposed brick walls, which could have been anywhere anytime, to the quietly atmospheric Rembrandt-like tableau backing up Gennaro’s death.
Despite some slight production missteps, this Lucrezia delivered the goods by concentrating on the music and singing, and that's what we were there for. Under the consistent, if not particularly inspired, baton of maestro Domingo, things kept moving along and the audience got more than willingly swept up by the relentlessly unfolding drama.