Written in 1833 over six weeks for La Scala who needed a last minute back up, Lucrezia Borgia hails from Donizetti’s prime, following on the heels of hits like Anna Bolena and L’Elisir d’Amore, and soon to be followed by Lucia. The audience were more enthusiastic than the critics it would seem, the latter taking against the Victor Hugo play that underpins Felice Romani’s libretto. While the music has its moments, the bare bones of the story and the tendency to pander to the grizzlier elements in the plot saps the drama of some of its potential for psychological subtlety, aspects that a good director can bring out. As such, Andrea Bernard only partially succeeds in this Donizetti Festival staging from 2019.

Donizetti

Where Bernard scores is in the gloomy melancholy of it all, aided and abetted by the gothic sets of Alberto Beltrame and the chiaroscuro lighting of Marco Alba. She also explores the homoerotic side of the relationship between Gennaro and his best friend Orsini to intriguing effect, linking it, one suspects, to the former’s apparent mother fixation. Whether the back story, epitomised by the permanent remains on stage of Lucrezia’s shattered crib adds much is moot (did the Pope – presumably her father – really sneak in wearing full ceremonial tiara and swap her baby for a bundle of dirt?) There are some curious other choices too, like why Alfonso carries a golf club and why he makes his chief henchman lie on the floor with a gold ball in his mouth. We know he’s a rotter, but why the anachronism? All in all, too much here feels clumsy, not helped by a fidgety chorus, scrappy video direction, and a tendency for the camera to struggle with the low-level lighting. That said, Bernard is respectful and imaginative, which goes some way to redeem the untidier aspects of the staging.

Working from Roger Parker’s new performing edition, there’s a lot going for it musically. A mix of the 1833 premiere and the 1840 Paris revisions, some good choices have been made, not least the inclusion of the Act II Gennaro/Orsini duet. Riccardo Frizza gets a lot of it right, leading the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini with gusto. The playing is a little rough and ready, but total commitment helps matters along.

With the shadow of Sutherland, Caballé and Gencer hanging over the title role, Carmela Remigio doesn’t stand a chance (despite her considerable dramatic commitment). The voice does warm up, and she’s pretty effective in the work’s dénouement, but early on she sounds unsteady and unvaried while her coloratura lacks either the necessary grace or the optional top notes to compensate. Similarly, while Marko Mimica as her husband Alfonso can certainly do the malevolent villain, Bernard’s direction paints a picture of unremitting evil and vocally he’s inclined to bellow, robbing the role of musical subtlety.

The compensation here is Catalan tenor Xabier Anduaga whose Gennaro is sung with great ardency and boasts some well-supported top notes (both loud and soft). It’s a promising young voice, and his acting isn’t bad either. He’s well partnered mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan in the trouser role of Orsini who sings with rich, dark tone and considerable panache. The smaller roles – mostly indistinguishable henchmen – range from acceptable to barely acceptable.

A mixed bag then. If you need the opera on DVD, maybe try Renée Fleming and Michael Fabiano from San Francisco (also conducted by Frizza).

Composer: Donizetti
Work: Lucrezia Borgia
Performers: Carmela Remigio s, Marko Mimica bar, Xabier Anduaga t, Varduhi Abrahamyan ms, Teatro Municipale di Piacenza/Riccardo Frizza
Label: Dynamic 37849 (DVD) 57849 (Blu-ray)

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