Gaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia
English National Opera, London
Paul Daniel, Mike Figgis, Claire Rutter, Michael Fabiano, Elizabeth DeShong, Alastair Miles
The Coliseum, London - February 18th, 2011
Even without reading the programme notes for Mike Figgis’ production of Lucrezia Borgia for the English National Opera, it’s clear from very early on that the medium isn't an environment that the film director feels entirely comfortable with. Even before the opera proper starts, some flashback scenes written and filmed in Rome by Figgis as a background to what takes place in the opera, are projected onto a white screen hanging over the stage, making it clear that he has approached the opera in much the same way that he would make a film.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing – opera is open to incorporating many disciplines and giving them varying weight, as well as being open to the kind of reinvention that new technology and modern ideas can bring to it – and there has accordingly been a healthy cross-over of film directors between the cinema and opera. While the short films that accompany the opera then are not at all needed, they are nevertheless a valid response to what the director sees as a need to give psychological, real-world depth to a character who is larger than life and, in Donizetti’s opera, played larger than life. There are, one could say, inconsistencies in the characterisation and gaps in credibility that arise out of its novelistic source in the work of Victor Hugo and its attempts to provide redemption for a complex and really quite notorious historical figure whose vile nature and her murderous inclinations towards anyone who criticises her family name is scarcely tempered by her love for her lost son, Gennaro.
In this case however, the impression is given that not only does Figgis not know his audience – an opera audience does not need the same kind of literal, realist approach as cinema, with the psychological background of the characters laid-out in this way – but it seems that he doesn’t understand opera, and the fact that, in a strong well-written opera (and Lucrezia Borgia certainly falls into that category), all the explanations that are needed, all the expressions of personality and the motivational factors – the guilt and the passion that lies at the heart of the characters – are all contained within the music and within the singing itself, even more so than in the narrative of the libretto, which can otherwise seem contrived and scarcely credible.
This failure to understand and get to grips with the medium he is working in or the audience he is working for, results in a rather over-literal, static and reductive approach for a director who can otherwise be quite avant-garde and experimental when it comes to filmmaking (Timecode, Hotel, COMA). A measure of his mistrust of opera, his audience and his own reaction towards it is in his choice to play Orsini (a female playing the role of a male), as a female, as if an opera audience couldn’t possibly grasp this convention that is so far removed from the rather more literal approach of cinematic realism. On his approach to the actual staging, there is also some merit to reducing the amount of clutter and glitz that usually accompanies a period, bel canto opera, and just letting the music and singing stand on its own. For the most part, the performances are certainly up to that task, particularly from Claire Rutter in the role of Lucrezia, but there is also a strong performance (particularly in the brindisi scene) from Elizabeth DeShong as Orsini, and the bond of love and friendship that lies between them actually does take on an interesting dimension and create other resonances with Orsini played as a female.
There is however an additional constraint that Figgis finds himself struggling with, and that is the policy of the English National Opera to perform opera in English wherever possible, regardless of the suitability of the opera. Admittedly, some opera can work surprisingly well in English – Wagner’s Parsifal, seen at the same opera house the following night – worked no less effectively in English than it does in German, but bel canto opera, for me at least, is entirely associated with the qualities and sounds of the Italian language. Conductor Paul Daniel worked on the translation himself, and really, he failed to do justice to the work, with some of the choices made provoking chuckles from the audience at inappropriate points, not at all helping to establish the desired tone, and making Figgis’ attempt at psychological depth and realism all the more difficult. Significantly, the short film segments made by Figgis himself were in Italian with English subtitles.
The reduction of the staging and the simplification of movements does have some impact then in reducing the over-the-top propensities of the opera that Figgis evidently feels need to be constrained, and while it restricts the dynamic and results in what is not the most eye-catching of productions, it does at least focus the attention on the singing. One gets the impression however that the reduction of the staging into smaller areas is an attempt by Figgis to scale down the canvas, as per the framing in his film work, and break it down into discreet, static, sections that can be brought together when reworked for the cinema or television screen. As such, it would seem that Mike Figgis has been brought in more with the first ever 3-D Live opera broadcast in mind (tomorrow 23rd February 2011 for Sky Arts 2 HD and for cinema). Here one can imagine the director being more at home, progressively experimenting in a filmed medium, using simultaneous action and multiple angles. As such however, unfair though it might be for the theatrical audience, his stage production of Lucrezia Borgia feels like an unfinished product that will only come to fruition when it is brought to the screen.