To the surprise of many, including myself, my opera subscription this year included a ticket to see Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, starring soprano Renee Fleming, who hadn't sung in San Francisco in a decade. Surprise because, of course, I am a fan of neither Donizetti nor Fleming. I've even walked out on two Donizetti operas (La Favorite and Elisir) and one performance with Fleming (but it wasn't her fault).
I'm surprised to report that I enjoyed the opera itself greatly. If I'd heard large chunks of it blind, I would have said it was some early Verdi opera or another. Shades of Rigoletto, which wouldn't be actually be written for another 18 years; you could certainly hear where much of Verdi's musical and gestural language came from.
Not that the opera comes close to matching Rigoletto's emotional impact or its formal perfection. How could it? The title character is a cross between Lady Macbeth and Rigoletto, and Donizetti simply did not have the musical vocabulary to portray those extremes of emotion and personality. Still, there's plenty of lovely music, even when it falls short of matching the drama.
And, of course, the plot is preposterous: the title character somehow misplaced her son as an infant, apparently handing him over to a lower-class person for caretaking, then lost track of him completely. At a ball, about to fall in love with him, and with him definitely falling for her, she realizes he's her long-lost offspring. Her jealous husband thinks the son is her lover, and tries to kill him. She has the antidote to the poison - look, she is a notorious poisoner - and saves him.
Then, attempting to kill off a large group of political enemies, who quite rightly hate her because she mudered some of their relatives, she accidentally poisons him too. Because he and his buddy Maffio Orsini have sworn to live and die together - we've heard this before, or, rather, we'll hear it again, in Forza and Don Carlo - he refuses to take the last bit of antidote.
By and large, the opera got an excellent performance. Debuting conductor Riccardo Frizza moved the music along well and in shapely fashion; the proportions were good, tempos appropriate and varied, nothing sagged, nothing was out of place. Tenor Michael Fabiano, making his SF Opera debut, was a terrific Gennaro, displaying a lovely voice with good size and projection, lots of ping, and plenty of stage presence. As his brother in arms, Maffio Orsini, mezzo Elizabeth DeShong sang with swagger, and handled the decorations in the last-act drinking song with aplomb. (If you know anything from this opera, it's the drinking song, quite possibly in a famous recording made about a century ago by the great contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink). Vitalij Kowaljow made a menacing Duke of Ferrara, overcoming a slightly wobbly start. A sprinkling of Adler Fellows took the minor roles and sang them well.
Now for the bad ...
The set is a rather dark unit set, with various parts moved around to create a ballroom, the Ferraras' basement, a street, etc., etc. Inoffensively uninteresting, in other words. The costumes are a mixture of more-or-less accurate 15th c. dress and leather steampunkish fantasy Renaissance outfits. Now, I like steampunkish fantasy Renaissance as much as the next opera goer, but we've seen this before, done better, in the wonderful Lamos/Yeargan DiChirico-influenced Rigoletto, with its stylized outfits, lurid colors, and sickly lighting. Next to that production, this looks mighty tame.
Worse, the direction is limp and, well, directionless. Too much stand-and-sing, not much interaction among the characters. And it shies away from showing the possibilities in the Gennaro/Maffio relationship, too.
....and the ugly.
Lucrezia Borgia has never been perfomed before at San Francisco Opera, and given the weakness of the libretto and the failure of the music to rise above the enjoyable and energetic, it's easy to see why. The piece is a novelty that will not, and should not, earn a place in the standard repertory, regardless of how many Sutherlands and Caballes and Gencers perform the title role.
SF Opera staged it solely as a vehicle for yet another diva; crucially, one utterly lacking the chops brought to it by those earlier singers. I would have to say that it was the worst performance I have ever seen live by a major singer: dramatically vapid and uninvolved, vocally wayward. Fleming's voice has no core to speak of; it's lovely and round and smoothly-produced without having much projecting power or edge or character. She trills nicely (and did, a few times) and can sustain a floated high note that soars over an ensemble (and she did, in the one place the score calls for this particular effect).
But the role calls for so much more: passion and theatricality; dramatic range and easy coloratura that sounds tossed off rather than labored over. Of this, Fleming had nothing. Her coloratura had no dramatic feel, no sense of outburst or passion; rather, she sounded careful, the kiss.of death in virtuoso music. She lost the line utterly in trying to get through the little notes. Dramatically, she was simply absent, smiling vacantly when passion or tenderness were called for, and certainly never seeming like a murderous poisoner. Joshua Kosman had a few things to say about her, you bet. (I agree with him straight down the line.)
And however much the press releases about her and this opera call Lucrezia a "signature role," she has sung it in perhaps two productions before this. For me, "signature roles" are the roles that immediately come to mind when you think of a singer: Nilsson and Isolde, Bruennhilde, Elektra, Turandot; Sutherland and the bel canto repertory; Zajick and Amneris, Azucena, and other big-gun mezzo roles.
When I think of Fleming, I think of the Marschallin, Countess Almaviva, Donna Anna, the Cappriccio Countess. This is Kiri te Kanawa territory, the roles that can be brought off with a beautiful voice and a generalized vacant nobility. (Well, maybe not Donna Anna; it's not possible to sing "Or sai chi l'onore" without some degree of brilliance.)
I know I've written before about the gala performance at the War Memorial where I heard Ruth Ann Swenson and Fleming in close proximity. The differences were surprising: Swenson had by far the larger, better-projected, more brilliant, and more beautiful voice than Fleming. Believe me, I know that Swenson was not the deepest actor to be found on the operatic stage, but only once did I come out of a performance of hers feeling seriously let down, a Manon where she, her co-star, and half the rest of the cast was announced as indisposed. We used to hear Swenson nearly annually at San Francisco, though she seems largely, and prematurely, vanished from the major houses. You bet that I spent about half the opera thinking how much better a Lucrezia Swenson would have been in her prime than Fleming was; she would have sung with more sweep and assurance and very likely considerably more drama and passion.