On Sunday 27th August, there was a concert performance of Donizetti’s bel canto masterpiece – Lucrezia Borgia. With a line-up of some of the best singers in the world, this was a three hour long performance. Victor Hugo’s Lucrèce Borgia, performed for the first time on 2 February 1833, was turned by Felice Romani within less than a year into Donizetti’s libretto. Earlier the same playwright’s La Roi s’amuse similarly turned in to Verdi’s Rigoletto.
There can be no doubt that the thrilling drama and powerful contrasts in the plot and in the title role must have appealed greatly to the composer. It is worth remembering his often quoted statement in a letter of 1835, not long after the premiere of Lucia di Lammermoor – “I want love violent love, for without it any subject will be cold”. The story is in keeping with latest trends in Romantic culture where a daughter of a Pope murders (albeit accidentally) her illegitimate son who stops short of killing his mother as he collapses dead.
In the opening prologue, Gennaro (Borgia’s illegitimate son) is revelling with Orsini and his henchmen in Venice. The two of them had been warned by a mysterious old man that they will meet their death together at the hands of Lucrezia Borgia, the infamous wife of Don Alfonso. Don Alfonso was sung here by bass Ildar Abdrazakov. He was born in Ufa in Bashkiria and was only 25 when he made his La Scala debut. He has appeared in all the leading European and American opera houses returning many times to the Met. He made his Salzburg debut in 2009.
In act I, Gennaro openly defies the Borgias by defiling the name plaque of their castle, removing the B and leaving orgia (orgy). Infuriated, Don Alfonso seeks to condemn Gennaro to death. The scene ends with a sumptuous trio where Alfonso is joined by Krassimira Stoyanova and tenor Juan Diego Flórez. The soprano is one of the leading singers of our time highly acclaimed by press and public alike. She was born and studied in Bulgaria, making her professional debut at the Sofia National Opera. She was named Kammersaengerin at the Vienna State Opera in 2009 where she remains a regular guest. Her repertoire contains the bel canto roles, the Verdi and Puccini heroines as well as Strauss and Slavic repertoire. Star tenor Flórez was born in Lima in Peru. Having completed his initial studies at the Lima Conservatory, he won a scholarship to continue studies at the Curtis in Philadelphia. Stepping in at the last minute he catapulted to fame overnight following his success in Matilde di Shabran.
Don Alfonso believes that his wife Lucrezia’s infedility with Gennaro observing their behaviour in Venice. Gennaro admits readily to the crime of defacing the Borgia name. Alfonso asks Lucrezia to choose the method of execution. But in a pretence of forgiving Gennaro, he offers him a glass of wine. Lucrezia rushes to Gennaro offering him an antidote to the poison in the wine.
Act II shifts to the palace of Princess Negroni, whose beauty is much fabled. However by now, Gennaro is passionately in love with Lucrezia. Orsini fails to persuade Gennaro to leave Ferrara to party at the princess Negroni’s palace. The two friends decide to party together and leave for Venice the next morning, Orsini convincing Gennaro that Lucrezia has been deceiving him.
Orsini presents a drinking song a raunchy brindisi and all drink the poisoned wine. Suddenly mournful singing is heard in the distance as Lucrezia enters dressed in black. To her horror, Gennaro has also consumed the poisoned wine. She implores him to consume the remaining antidote revealing to him that she is his mother. He prefers to die in the arms of his friends and she collapses on his lifeless body.
Eighteenth century bel canto opera at its best. The high drama and pathos of this historic story set in papal Venice with the ongoings of the infamous Borgia family of the Medici. This performance of the Salzburg festival was truly outstanding. The dark ottocento colours of Donizetti’s score (horns, winds and percussion) were brought out beautifully by the orchestra of the Salzburg Mozarteum conducted by Marco Armiliato.