Opera. The director of the success production Arabella returns. This time Christof Loy takes on a notorious poison murderess who falls in love with her own son.
With Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia we continue the successful bel canto line conducted by our principal guest conductor Giancarlo Andretta. The opera, which has not been performed on a Swedish stage since 1903 and in Göteborg only in 1864, offers stunningly fine singing with a grandiose multi-faceted opera heroine at its heart: Lucrezia Borgia. This notorious poison murderess falls in love with a young man who eventually turns out to be her own son...
The production comes from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, where it had great success with Christof Loy as director. He is one of the major names in directing at the moment, and returns to The Göteborg Opera after Arabella and Faust. In his sparse production he emphasises Lucrezia Borgia’s various guises and “roles” she plays in the most varied of contexts. Her son Gennaro and his companions are portrayed ambiguously as college boys in a boarding school environment.
The title role was sung in Munich by Edita Gruberova, whilst here we meet a singing star of a later generation in the Russian coloratura soprano Katja Levin. She has previously had success as Lucrezia Borgia in Bologna. The Turkish tenor Bülent Bezdüz returns to us as Gennaro after having portrayed Rodolfo in Bohème and Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor. The other two leading roles – Lucrezia’s wicked husband Don Alfonso, and Orsini, Gennaro’s good friend, are sung by two singers well known to Göteborg audiences: baritone Åke Zetterström and the mezzo soprano Ann-Kristin Jones. Expect a thirteen-performance festival of singing in an extremely strong opera drama.
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When Gaetano Donizetti had his breakthrough at La Scala in Milan in 1830 with the opera Anna Bolena, he had already written half of his 70 operas – all of them created before his 46th birthday! After this breakthrough he cast himself free from Rossini's style and his name was spread around the world. On the same prestigious stage L'Elisir D'Amore (1832) and Lucrezia Borgia (1833) were soon swiftly performed. And, two years later he completed his most renowned tragic opera, Lucia di Lammermoor.**
Difficulties in preparation for the world premiere
When Donizetti received a contractual offer before the opening of the season on Boxing Day in 1833, a decision was made to base the work around Victor Hugo's melodramatic play Lucrèce Borgia. It had been a success in Paris only six months previously. The idea was Donizetti's; he had been particularly keen on the scene towards the end of the play when the poisoner Lucrezia Borgia had arranged five coffins for her victims at the banquette. However, censorship stopped this venture and threatened to ban the opera. The idea that this person who was not only the daughter of a pope, but who would also fall in love with her own son whom she would finally murder by mistake, was presumably just too much for the censorship. However, the opera was permitted, provided that Lucrezia's last five victims died off-stage and no coffins were placed on the stage. The librettist was Felice Romani, the greatest and most experienced librettist of the time, who wrote texts for Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, as well as the early Verdi.
In Italy at that time, which is also called the Bel Canto Era, it was most important for an opera director to have singers that were popular and skilful enough – sometimes this was even more important than having the "right" composer. To play the part of Lucrezia Borgia the soprano Henriette Méric-Lalande, who was of French descent but had a ten year-long career in Italy behind her, was chosen. However, her star had begun to fall and her vocal resilience was no longer what it once had been. Thus she was afraid to test anything new or different from her previous experience. Her first condition – that she refused to wear a carnival mask when she made her initial entrance, since that would mean taking the risk of not being recognized and thus missing out on her entrance applauses – was easy enough to comply with.
Madame Méric-Lalande could instead enter with her mask in her hand. It was worse with the final scene: she demanded from Donizetti a final cabaletta, which was customary in great prima donna operas. The composer maintained that it was unlikely that a mother, who had just lost her son by her own hand, would burst into cascades of coloratura. But, she refused to give in, so Romani had to produce eight lines. Rumour has it that Donizetti composed these lines on purpose in a way that was so difficult for the singer to perform, considering her vocal ability at the time, that she failed to sing it well. The opera itself, however, did not flop, but rather turned out to be a relative success for the latest composing star in the opera world.
Nevertheless, there were continued difficulties with the censorship when the opera was to be performed on other stages in Italy. Descendants of the Borgia family had used their contacts with the Vatican to have the opera stopped. Thus, the work had to be performed under a number of different names and with diverse text revision processes. When it was about to be performed in Paris in 1840, Victor Hugo claimed in court that the librettist Romani had used his play without permission. However, a settlement was reached and, for a new production at La Scala, the composer restored the final scene as he originally wanted to have it – without the soprano's final cabaletta, with the opera instead being concluded with the death-scene of the son, Gennaro. This ending is nonetheless seldom seen nowadays, and The Göteborg Opera production features the original version. On the other hand, Gennaro's aria "T'amo qual dama un angel" will be performed in the introduction to the second act in Gothenburg. This was added by Donizetti later on for the tenor Nicolai Ivanoff, since Gennaro would otherwise not have had his own aria.
A hair-raising story
The opera is about Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara and married for the third time. Her current husband is Alfonso d'Este whose bass role is that of the third main character. The fourth is Gennaro's friend Orsini, written as a breeches role for a contralto voice. Gennaro and Orsini belong to noble families that Lucrezia has wronged in many ways and even partly wiped out. The opera features several young representatives of these families in minor roles. The fact that Gennaro is actually Lucrezia's son is something he does not get to know until in the final scene, after Lucrezia herself has been given this explanation as to why she had been drawn to this young man: it was the voice of her blood speaking. Everyone spies on everyone else in this opera, not least on the master and mistress Alfonso and Lucrezia; she warns him several times of the risk of ending up as just one in a long row, "Borgia's third husband" – and then not exactly by divorce...When Lucrezia, as revenge for insult and injury inflicted on her by Gennaro's friends, poisons them all, she has not counted on Gennaro himself appearing at this illustrious banquet. The son dies in his mother's arms.
The real Lucrezia Borgia
Not much of the storyline corresponds with the historical Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519). Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, was admittedly her third husband, but she was more a victim of power-hungry men in her own family: the first two marriages were a part of her father's and brother's politics of power, and it was her brother who got rid of her second husband. It is true that her father did become a pope, Alexander VI. After the death of her father and after her brother had been forced into exile, Lucrezia was actually able to live a happy family life with Alfonso, to whom she bore seven children; hardly the macabre death-dance of a marriage portrayed in Hugo's play and Romani's libretto. Moreover, Hugo's play is even "worse" than the opera since Gennaro's father is actually Lucrezia’s evil brother. This fact is completely removed from Romani's libretto, in which one is kept in limbo with regards to the identity of Gennaro's father.
A magnificent prima donna role
Donizetti's opera spread to London, New York and many other cities but seldom became an oft-played opera. It came to Sweden – to the Royal Opera – in 1853 and was also shown in Gothenburg in 1864 with a foreign guest performance. On the other hand, it has become a much sought after role for prima donnas with a capacity for vocal excesses: Giulia Grisi, Therese Tietjens, Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballé, Joan Sutherland and Edita Gruberová. It has not been performed in Sweden since 1903 (then still at the Stockholm Opera) except for a concertante performance with Joan Sutherland during the early 1980s. However, Orsini's drinking-song from the last act has been a popular concert number ever since the world première. In his production, premièred in Munich in 2009 with Edita Gruberová in the title role, Christof Loy has chosen to take note of the different contradictory roles that Lucrezia chooses, or is forced, to take on. In the first scene she is the Renaissance woman and the yearning mother, dressed in red. Next time she appears she is a tough business woman, dressed in trousers and a blouse with a pussy-cat bow, negotiating with her husband and other potentates. In the last scene – the fatal banquet – she fulfils the image of Lucrezia Borgia as the infamous poisoner, dressed in black with a long white wig. Furthermore, Loy chooses to focus his production around the trauma that mother and son are subjected to throughout their lives, separated from each other, without the one knowing who the other is. Gennaro's cronies are depicted as a young male collective, almost like students at a college. The austere stage design includes the name "Borgia", whose sign, quite in keeping with the story, is stripped of its B and becomes "Orgia". An overwhelming drama and a stunning cast can be expected when Katja Levin, Bülent Bezdüz, Mats Persson and Ann-Kristin Jones play the four main characters with Giancarlo Andretta at the conductor's podium.
Göran Gademan, dramaturge