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Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia

English National Opera, London,  January 31 - March 3, 2011.

A personal viewpoint


The ENO production of Lucrezia Borgia stirred up quite a lot of controversy as detailed in the main report. Members of the Society tended to agree with many of the adverse comments and some were particularly critical that music and text, which owed nothing to Donizetti and Romani, had been included in the films. However, I found myself very much in agreement with Rupert Christiansen's remarks about being "curiously gripped" despite some misgivings  and, although it was difficult to pin down exactly why it worked, by the end, I felt that this was ENO’s best recent Donizetti production, some way ahead of their over intellectualised Lucia and clever but bland Elixir of Love.

In different measures, the films, the staging and the disparity between the films and staging were all singled out for criticism.  The films in themselves were often praised and some of the images were very striking although the eroticism was not to everyone’s taste. More pertinently, all four could have been edited to advantage.  The most successful were the middle two where the tragedy following the misunderstanding about the relationship between Lucrezia and her servant Calderon has echoes in the opera’s plot and, most powerfully, the birth and later forced removal of Lucrezia’s baby, her search for which is the mainspring of the plot.

The static nature of much of the operatic action was seen by some as evidence of a lack of imagination or technique on Figgis’s part, but he made clear that the minimal movement was an explicit intention.  The opening set was just a bench and a tree and used the whole stage but, for the later scenes, the sets took up only part of the stage with the remainder empty and dark thus focussing the action in the centre of the stage, almost in some ways like a puppet theatre.  This left the audience in no doubt that they were observing a performance, again an explicit Figgis aim, rather than enabling any sort of identification with the action.  At the same time, the darkness lent a feeling of claustrophobia and oppression and the chorus, dressed in black, was often an almost invisible onlooker, Figgis seeing them very much as the chorus in a Greek tragedy rather than active participants in the action.

In effect, the opera became almost of a series of tableaux, rather than a continuous drama, which one would have expected to lead to a loss of emotional impact, further reduced by the artificiality of the action so clearly bounded within the empty stage.  Yet, taking the end of the prologue as an example, a largely static Lucrezia was surrounded by a semicircle of Gennaro’s friends insulting her and outside them was a further semi-circle of the chorus.  The result was a much stronger sense of isolation and hostility than might have been gained from more typical histrionics by Lucrezia, which seems to be what some critics missed.

The aspect that caused the most upset was the contrast between film and stage, “The effect of going from the erotically charged, beautiful, carefully framed and arranged films … to the relative anarchy of the stage is distressing”[1].  True, there was no sense of dramatic continuity between them or even a temporal connection, for example, the film in which Lucrezia’s baby is taken from her occurred just before Act 2 rather than before the start of the opera.  However, there were emotional reverberations from the film that enriched the response to the events on stage.

Thus, Figgis’s production was a work of many parts, many quite beautiful and arresting, and all consistent within themselves but with no apparent thread tying them all together.  However, if we consider Figgis’s statement that he was trying to present the opera “to an audience as it would originally have been seen but in a different context”[2], then the ideas behind the production come into better focus.  If we consider bel canto in its day, the sets and costumes would have built initial expectation and excitement and have illuminated particular episodes of the action, but, in our image-soaked age, Figgis reasoned that film, not just a stage set, was needed to create that impetus.  This, rather than Figgis’s explicit reason of giving extra dimensions to Lucrezia’s character, was the films’ real contribution.  Figgis was then largely content to let the music build on this springboard, for it was the music, most particularly the singing, that gave continuity and coherence and delivered the emotional and dramatic punch in  bel canto opera, sometimes augmented by the acting, Malibran, and sometimes not, Rubini.

By the 1830’s, many composers were wanting to achieve a broader, more truly dramatic impact with opera, culminating eventually in Wagner’s critique of its current state and ideas for changing it.  Donizetti and Lucrezia Borgia were a case in point, as his wish, which he later succeeded in introducing, was for a low-key finale in keeping with the death of Gennaro.  However, the prima donna, Méric-Lalande, demanded the traditional barn storming finish.  Perhaps the obstacle for many people with this production was that we are all Wagnerites now; we expect all aspects of a production to be working towards one end all of the time.

Figgis gave us an older, simpler, looser, more intuitive performance style that essentially drew its strength from the music rather than the overall dramatic experience.  Not all of his ideas worked but I feel that he largely succeeded in his aim.  Although it was televised, ultimately, this is a theatrical experience and it is to be hoped that ENO will persevere for at least another time to give the chance for a more sympathetic reaction to a production that, while quite alien to our usual stage experience, can provide a very rewarding evening.


[1] Paul Levy, Rule-Breaking Figgis Fails His Screen Test,    February 4, 2011

[2] Mike Figgis, “My Music”, Gramophone,  March 2011, p.130.




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