Even non-opera lovers are familiar with the names of the best-known operas, such as Aida, La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Carmen. Everyone knows “The Ride of the Valkyrie,” the showstopper tune from Die Walkure. These operas by Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, and Wagner are all “chestnuts” and justly so, performed as often as they are because the music is so memorable and pleasing.
Donizetti’s 1833 Lucrezia Borgia, on the other hand, is currently having its San Francisco Opera company premiere. That means that in its 88-year history, the company had never presented the opera before this production, which stars today’s most famous soprano, Renée Fleming. And yet, the music is so accessible and beautiful, and calls for such impressive singing, you could argue that Lucrezia Borgia would be an excellent place for an opera novice to start.
The stellar cast in San Francisco—Fleming as the murderous yet loving (if up to then secret) mother; Michael Fabiano as her son, Gennaro; Vitalij Kowaljow as her husband, Alphonso d’Este; and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Gennaro’s great friend and fellow warrior, Orsini, to name only the leads—certainly makes a great case for the music. Even a novice can appreciate how well they perform and how much they are asked to do: Few operas call for the singers to demonstrate their skills in the high and low notes, with such showy embellishments. Plus, the story has sword fighting, family secrets, hidden love, betrayal, murder by poison…what more could you ask?
But there’s a reason operas like Lucrezia Borgia are not performed as often as the Carmens and Aidas. They’re too damn difficult! Predating Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, and the other great Romantic composers, Donizetti wrote bel canto—a style of singing from 17th- and 18th-century Italy that called for greater demands on the voice, with far more range and decoration. (And was later bypassed by the new kinds of opera written by the younger composers.)
As Fleming says in the program notes, “I believed that you couldn’t have a career if you didn’t sing bel canto…. This was beautiful music that focused on the art of singing, and I was determined to try and master our most virtuosic arias!” A worthy goal, no doubt, but it slowed down her career; she kept auditioning with these arias, and “I didn’t sing them well enough. If I’d been singing Mozart or something with much less range…I suspect I would have started performing a few years earlier.”
Well, she’s performing now, and it might not be too late to catch her as Lucrezia Borgia.
Oct 8 and Oct. 11, Lucrezia Borgia, San Francisco Opera, 415.864.3330; sfopera.com.