Fleming shines in fanciful 'Borgia'

The Baltimore Sun

"Everyone abhors me," sings one of history's most notoriously cruel women early on in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, "and yet I wasn't born for such a sad fate."

That may not be enough to make her a totally sympathetic character, especially since she does a whole lot of poisoning in the last scene. But Renee Fleming offers a valiant, persuasive portrayal of the conflicted Lucrezia in Washington National Opera's new production of this rarely staged work, a production that yielded dynamic musical and visual results on opening night at the Kennedy Center.

Although unlikely to reach the popularity enjoyed by Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor or L'elisir d'amore, the darkly tragic Lucrezia Borgia is rich enough in melodic interest and vivid orchestral coloring to warrant more attention. (The work has been performed exactly once, in 1904, at the Metropolitan Opera.)

The plot holds up well enough, even if the whole thing hinges on Lucrezia's inexplicable reluctance to tell her husband that the young man she has been showing so much concern for is an illegitimate son. I mean, what's one more little indiscretion to a Borgia?

John Pascoe, who directed and designed the WNO staging, sees Lucrezia as the product of an abusive family, a woman fundamentally trapped and corrupted by the ruthless ways of her infamous relatives, yet yearning all the while to enjoy something purer - motherly love. Works for me.

Fleming easily caught the proud side of Lucrezia on Saturday night, and she also brought out the heart beating beneath. There were some cloudy spots in the singing, a few tentative sounds or undefined articulation in coloratura flights. But most of it was exceptionally beautiful, involving and, especially when Fleming exploited her smoky low register, boldly spiced with drama.

The luminous soprano was surrounded by a dynamic cast. As Gennaro, who discovers all too tragically that he's the offspring of the dreaded Borgia, the lean and lithe Vittorio Grigolo turned in a remarkably animated performance. Although the young tenor could have used subtler tonal coloring and more dynamic variety, his singing had an exciting immediacy. Grigolo, who sparked WNO's La Boheme last year, has star quality, and he's bound to go far in today's looks-obsessed opera world.

Veteran bass Ruggero Raimondi offered a forceful characterization of Alfonso, Lucrezia's jealous and cruel husband. His voice sounded past its prime but exuded authoritative stylistic flair. Kate Aldrich used her smooth, mellow mezzo imaginatively as Gennaro's buddy Orsini and provided finely detailed acting.

Among the several supporting singers, Robert Cantrell (Gubetta) and Yingxi Zhang (Rustighello) stood out for expressive vibrancy. The chorus did generally strong work.

WNO general director Placido Domingo conducted. Not every detail was neatly attended to, but he achieved an effective balance between propulsion and breadth of phrasing. After a rocky start, the orchestra offered secure, colorful playing.

Pascoe, who designed the sets and costumes and also served as director, gave the production a distinctive look. A threatening world of towering walls conjures up 16th-century Italy, while a startling variety of raiments, suggesting assorted eras, provides dashes and splashes of color.

One goal was to emphasize the masculine world Lucrezia lived in, but things got a little campy. Fleming, previously moving about in swirling, super-elegant gowns, entered the final scene yielding a sword and sporting a kind of dominatrix outfit. And Grigolo was outfitted in what looked liked a glittery old David Bowie get-up, with super-spiked blond coif (Fleming suddenly revealed the same hairstyle in that finale, perhaps a sign of Lucrezia's close psychic bond with her son).

For the most part, though, the fanciful visual touches proved entertaining, as did Pascoe's most daring directorial flourish. Lucrezia Borgia has no conventional male-female love story since Alfonso and Lucrezia are hardly a romantic couple, but two male characters do express great affection: Gennaro and Orsini (the latter is a "trouser role" - opera has a long tradition of women portraying men).

Finding abundant justification in the libretto for a gay subplot, Pascoe cleverly draws it out to provide an extra dimension to the doomed characters, who kiss in the shadows and talk of running off together, before the Borgia curse falls heavily on them.

if you go

Lucrezia Borgia will be performed with Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and 7 p.m. Nov. 15 and 17; Renee Fleming sings the title role at 2 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington. Tickets are $68-$250. Call 202-295-2400 or go to dc-opera.org.

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