Donizetti, one of the big three Bel Canto composers, liked to write about technicolor, edgy, and dangerous women: Anne Boleyn, Walter Scott’s tragic Bride of Lammermoor, and that purveyor of poison and daughter of a Pope, Lucretia Borgia.
Bel Cantos are the old-timey operas where plot and acting are secondary to the virtuosity of the singer, and they were tradionally written as star vehicles.
Reneé Fleming is a name people recognize even if they don’t go to opera, and San Francisco Opera has the incredible fortune to present this star in Lucrezia Borgiaplaying for five more dates through October 11.
Ms. Fleming’s trills, runs, dazzling control, and effortless precision left my mouth agape.
Add to this the sensuous presence of a young hunk with a tenor that washes over you and makes you glow. Michael Fabiano makes a stunning SF Opera debut as Gennaro with a shock of blond hair dressed as Phoebus Apollo with a bare chest and sculpted pectorals.
Gennaro has an instant connection with Lucrezia of the Ashton Kutcher/Demi Moore variety, but after a few more lines about his mother abandoning him and the look on her face, we all recognize she’s his long-lost mom; if, of course, she just tells him, the opera is over. So her husband the Duke swears jealous revenge on him, he pines for her then curses her toying with his affections, his friends inveigh against her, all the while she’s running around furiously trying to protect him while withholding this secret.
There are many great voices including the basso Duke played by Vitali Kowaljow and Daniel Montenegro as Rustighello. East Bay favorite Igor Viera plays Lucrezia’s loyal henchman Gubetta, and is featured in a duet with Ms. Fleming. Viera recently appeared in Berkeley West Edge Opera’s Don Giovanni, and played Mercutio under this critic’s direction in Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet for that company a few seasons ago.
The sets are fantastico as always at the SFO, and take us to Renaissance Venice. A muscular bull statue over the Borgia name plaque gives a priapic energy to the setting, and provides a plot foil via an act of vandalism and a pun. Light shines through the bricks of the structures; steam and up-light from a trapdoor with lots of side and back-light peek between the buildings like a De Chirico painting but with much nighttime chiaroscuro. Coupled with the looming pallazzi, they set the mood and paint an artistic scenic picture, but one which has the drawback of lulling us when paired with the sweet melodies. Oddly the music seems often at odds with the text and situation, being lighthearted when the moment is tense, etc. For about ten minutes late in the first act, even the snoring of the guy next to me didn’t wake me up.
Director and production designer John Pascoe displays his artistry in the initial scene with masterful sweeping stage movement of the multitude, but then seems to abandon the staging of duets and smaller scenes to a “park and bark” stand-over-there-and-sing fashion. Often the chorus was late in entrances and exits on opening night. His costume designs are lovely and appropriate, but not particularly innovative, except for the provocative costumes lavished on Gennaro. I wondered if the grand orchestra’s gorgeous sound, coaxed by the baton of Ricardo Frizza, had rehearsed much with the singers for they seemed to sometimes drown out their pianissimo, and once a duo lost their place.
Outstanding ovations were heard for lovely, cherubic-faced Elizabeth DeShong in the breeches role of Maffio Orsini, bosom buddy of Gennaro. She is believable as a diminutive, scrappy young man, and her mezzo is powerful and compelling with great access to the lower notes (the part is generally sung by a contralto). Her acting is superb in her scenes with Fabiano who is also an excellent actor, and they throw in a little gender-back-bending-switcheroo that had the audience gasping.
This is the first time I’ve seen Ms. Fleming sing; she seems to be of the old school as first a singer and very secondarily an actress, or maybe that’s just the tradition of bel canto where the energy is put into the ornamentation rather than the histrionics. Sometimes it was as if June Cleaver was playing Lucrezia, but she cuts loose in the bloody finale and sends the audience home moved.
Noteworthy: Ms. Fleming was a Fulbright Scholar, trained at Eastman School of Music and Juillard, and had to choose between being a big band jazz singer or opera, singing jazz at night to pay for school.
It’s a chance to see one of the Celestial Lyric Sopranos of Opera, and revel in the joy that is the San Francisco Opera. So if you have the price of admission, it’s one you’ll thank yourself for the memory.
Lucrezia Borgia by Gaetano Donizetti
Directed and designed by John Pascoe, conducted by Ricardo Frizza
San Francisco Opera
Sep 29, Oct 2, 5, 8, 11
www.sfopera.com (415) 864-3330
John A. McMullen II is a member of San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Associations, and Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. EJ Dunne edits.