Gaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia
Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2009
Bertrand de Billy, Christof Loy, Edita Gruberova, Pavol Breslik, Franco Vassallo, Alice Coote, Bruno Ribeiro, Christian Rieger, Christopher Magiera, Erik Årman, Steven Humes, Emanuele D’Aguanno, Christian van Horn, Elisabeth Haag
I can easily understand why many might not like Christof Loy’s opera stage productions. If I didn’t know better myself, I’d swear that he’s having a laugh with this 2009 production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia for the Bavarian State Opera. When I say I know better however, that’s taking a superior stance, but rather speaking from experience that no matter how minimally staged, no matter how ludicrous the proposition or inappropriate the costume design, and as far removed as they seem to be from the original stage directions, each of his recent productions that I have seen (Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Theodora) have, without exception, been as powerful a performance of the work in question as any I’ve ever seen. That’s why, despite initial reservations that he surely can’t be serious with this bizarre staging of Lucrezia Borgia, it only takes a few moments of actually listening to the performances to see that, whatever he’s doing, the full power and beauty of the work is all there and coming across.
This Lucrezia Borgia, I have to say, doesn’t look like any bel canto opera production you’ve seen before, but it does look a lot like a typical Christof Loy production - bare minimally decorated stage, everyone wearing dinner jackets, a couple of chairs scattered around. That’s 15th century Venice of the Prologue. The only real distinguishing feature is the distinguished figure of Edita Gruberova as Lucrezia Borgia, wearing a period costume in bold red while everyone else is dressed in black and white and the stage is grey, and the words LUCREZIA BORGIA spelt out in big block letters along the back wall. That’s something at least, meaning that it will allow one letter to be dropped at a significant point in the First Act, even if that’s about as much as a concession as you’ll find here to the stage directions in the libretto. Oh, and Orsini and his men look like public schoolboys, with floppy hair and their trousers rolled-up to just below the knees. What on earth is that all about?
Despite confusion over just what exactly Christof Loy’s intentions could possibly be, and the nagging feeling that he really is displaying nothing but contempt for the work, your ears should tell a different story and you might even begrudgingly admit that somehow - without really being able to put your finger on the reason why - the production does actually work. Lucrezia Borgia is not an easy opera to make work on the stage. The plot line, derived from a work by Victor Hugo and awkwardly adapted for Donizetti by Francesco Maria Piave, is rather ridiculous, weighed down by exposition and unlikely coincidences. If we’re to accept the conflict within Lucrezia over her maternal feelings for Gennaro and her monstrous activities as part of the murderous Borgia family, you have to find some humanity in there, and that’s not easily found within the libretto. Although Donizetti’s scoring can seem a little bit bel canto by numbers, and even with Bertrand de Billy conducting it does tend to plod along in places, there are nonetheless some marvellous opportunities for a singer to bring out that underlying humanity, but really you need a singer like Joan Sutherland to be capable of expressing it. Or Edita Gruberova.
Commanding terrific presence from the moment she appears in her red period dress while all around her speak of youth and modernism, Gruberova - with respect - looks like a relic from the past. And this is perhaps where Christof Loy’s production - created specifically for the Bayerische Staatsoper following Loy and Gruberova’s previous collaboration on Roberto Devereux - comes into its own. Lucrezia Borgia is indeed a relic of the past, the latest in a long line of a dynasty of terror whose crimes have not been forgotten by Orsini and his men, who are at long last speaking out against the tyranny of the Borgias. The challenges of playing the role of Lucrezia Borgia then are not so much in the singing - which, to say the least, is challenge enough - but in making Lucrezia work as a real character. On paper it doesn’t work, the libretto filled with flaws and inconsistencies that are nearly impossible to reconcile within the personality of one person. Is Lucrezia Borgia a monster? Undoubtedly. The libretto and the testimony of Orsini and his colleagues and her revenge upon them make that quite evident even within the opera itself, never mind the historical record. Even her reaction to the insult to the family name that is perpetrated by Gennaro shows that the same heartless monster still resides within, regardless of the sensitivity she has shown earlier. Is she really capable of loving motherly sentiments and compassion or are they just an expression of self-interest in her own family name, of a mother for her son? Making you like the character or sympathise with her is not the issue however, making her come to life is the real challenge, and Edita Gruberova can do that. Not many others can.
Donizetti’s style and the rather static nature of the bel canto repertoire, which involves more standing around and singing than action or drama, is also a relic of the past and, perhaps recognising that, Christof Loy plays up to it. No amount of props and costumes and period detail is going to make Lucrezia Borgia any more convincing as a drama, but creating an environment that gives the necessary space to the actual real strengths of the work - the arias and the coloratura given expression by singers of sufficient stature and quality - and actually highlighting them against the rather drab background, seems to me to be working with the nature, qualities and weaknesses of the opera itself. Yes, some of the directorial choices can seem wilfully bizarre, but the basic simplicity of having the words LUCREZIA BORGIA in capital letters on the backdrop throughout reminds you that this is history and character writ large, played large by Donizetti, and performed the only way it can be performed. It takes singers of sufficient strength of personality and the necessary ability to rise to the heights required to make this grotesque and absurd relic of another age meaningful, comprehensible and even beautiful.
The decision then, following their previous collaboration on the stunning Munich production of Roberto Devereux, to build this new production of Lucrezia Borgia around Gruberova, proves to be a great success, and is perhaps the only way it would work. It might as well say EDITA GRUBEROVA on the backdrop. She is simply mesmerising to watch and to listen to, rising to the challenges that the nature of her character represents and meeting the demanding nature of the arias. In fact, she shows that they are one and the same, that the complex nature of the character can only be expressed though the phrasing and the delivery, with full command and awareness of how one’s own tone of voice can be used towards meeting that objective. Experience, if you like, but it’s more than that. For Lucrezia Borgia to succeed it needs more than just a good technique and experience, it needs a voice of real substance and personality, and Edita Gruberova certainly has that. It helps considerably though if you have a strong Gennaro and Pavol Breslik is one of the finest young tenors around. I don’t think there is sufficient attention paid to making his character “work” within the dramatic context of the opera and to a large extent the other roles - Alice Coote’s Orsini and Franco Vassallo’s Don Alfonso - are similarly sung well, but weakly characterised (there are limits admittedly to what a stage director or performer can do with this libretto), but - as is made clear here - the opera is all about LUCREZIA BORGIA, and this is one production that is worthy of being capitalised.
There is a slight downside to the production choices however in that it doesn’t always come across as effectively as it might on the screen, or indeed in the audio mixing. The use of metal plates for a raised platform causes a fair amount of clatter and rattling, while the boxed empty stage leads to an echoing tone that affects the acoustics of the singing and, it seems, the orchestration. The quality of the singing is evident - and Edita Gruberova doesn’t have too much trouble being heard - but the tone is metallic and far from the warm sound you would expect for a bel canto opera. Within the limitations of the mostly bare stage, Brian Large directs as well as he can for the small screen, taking in the impact of the whole stage with edits that are attuned to the rhythms of the music, but it still never really manages to bring the staging to life. The image quality is strong in the High Definition presentation, the audio tracks - PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0 - are however rather limited in dynamic range by the acoustics. The Blu-ray also includes a fascinating hour-long documentary ‘The Art of Bel Canto - Edita Gruberova’, charting the career of the Czech-Slovak soprano and her approach to opera. The BD is region-free and subtitles for the main feature are English, German, French, Italian and Spanish.