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Renee Fleming, vibrant cast bow in WNO 'Lucrezia'

Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia may never enjoy as comfortable a spot in the repertoire as his Lucia di Lammermoor or L'elisir d'amore, but Washington National Opera's new production makes an awfully strong case for this darkly tragic work.

Saturday's opening night at the Kennedy Center drew a big, vociferous crowd, thanks largely to the presence of Renee Fleming in the title role. She did not disappoint. The luminous soprano was surrounded by a dynamic cast that included veteran bass Ruggero Raimondi, mezzo Kate Aldrich and tenor Vittorio Grigolo. That WNO general director Placido Domingo was conducting added to the sense of occasion. 

Fleming sang with considerable eloquence of phrase and beauty of tone as she revealed the troubled character of one of history's most notorious women. Lucrezia may be a cold-blooded poisoner when provoked, but the opera posits that she's also a deeply caring mother, and that womanly side is what Fleming brought out to telling effect. There were some cloudy spots in the technique, a few tentative sounds or undefined articulation during coloratura flights. But most of vocalism was warm and involving, and, when she exploited her smoky low register, boldly dramatic. (Strange that Callas never embraced this role; Fleming made plain how much meat there is in it.)

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As Gennaro, the young man who discovers all too tragically that he's a son of the infamous Borgia, the lean and lithe Grigolo turned in a remarkably animated performance. Although his singing could have used subtler tonal coloring, it had an exciting immediacy. It's impossible to miss the tenor's blossoming "star quality." As Alfonso, Lucrezia's jealous and cruel husband, Raimondi offered a forceful characterization. His voice sounded past its prime, but exuded authoritative stylistic flair. Aldrich used her smooth, mellow mezzo imaginatively as Maffio Orsini and provided finely detailed acting. Domingo seemed quite assured on the podium, drawing mostly secure playing from the orchestra and molding the score sensitively.

John Pascoe's production -- he designed the sets and costumes and served as director -- certainly has a distinctive look. In a note distributed to the press, Pascoe's costumes are said to have a "historical basis with some contemporary graphic elements" and to suggest an "aggressively masculine" image. That would, perhaps, account for Fleming's dominatrix outfit in the final scene, which proved more distracting than theatrically insightful. And Gennaro's nearly disco-worthy costume seemed to have been inspired by one of the more flamboyant numbers sported by Mr. Humphries on the old Brit-com Are You Being Served? There are a few other quibble-y bits, including Genarro's starkly spiked blond coif, which Lucrezia suddenly emulates in the finale. But, for the most part, the visual elements work well within the shadowy world Pascoe has created, a world of towering 16th century Italian walls that frame the well-paced action. The contrast between the physical surroundings and all those fanciful costumes somehow worked (maybe because it was so close to Halloween).

The most striking of Pascoe's directorial flourishes has to do with Gennaro and Maffio. Their more-than-buddies relationship takes on a dimension people in Donizetti's time presumably would never have suspected, let alone dared to explore in an opera house, but which Pascoe has found abundant justification for in the libretto. (The fact that Maffio is a "trouser role" -- opera has a long tradition of women portraying men -- may confuse some unsuspecting folks in the audience.) Lucrezia Borgia is a rare Italian opera without an emphasis on a conventional male-female love story. There's no love between Lucrezia and her husband, and Genarro's initially mistaken belief that Lucrezia is just a passionate female admirer obviously gets straightened out in a hurry. Pascoe has cleverly spotted a male-male romantic subplot and draws it out to provide an extra dimension to the doomed characters and give the whole opera a littel unexpected spice.

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PHOTOS BY KARIN COOPER FOR WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA (Top left, Renee Fleming; lower left, Vittorio Grigolo)

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