Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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.


John Marcher said...

I used to think I didn't like Donizetti until I realized after four or five productions which I absolutely loved that I actually do like him. I was also struck by how much this particular opera reminded me of Verdi- he certainly got more than one musical idea from it.

What happened to Swensen? Her last local performance was at Berkeley Opera's anniversary concert a couple of years back and I haven't seen her name anywhere since. I know she's persona non grata at the Met since Gelb, but she hasn't been at SFO for quite some time. Her Violetta in the Traviata with Hvorostovsky and Villazon remains one of the finest nights at the opera I've ever experienced.

Fleming's acting in this Lucrezia was atrocious. I went standing and was glad I didn't shell out the money for an actual ticket.

Lisa Hirsch said...

It was "Daughter of the Regiment" that made me think more positively of Donizetti - I loved the production, JDF, and Diana Damrau.

I have heard that Swenson's cancer diagnosis and treatment may have put opera houses off her. She sang well in her last SFO appearance (Ariodante in 2008) but it seems Gockley also doesn't want her back. I have heard of her singing in Baltimore - Adalgisa in a run of Norma, for which she got excellent reviews - and something or other in Florida. I'd love to have her back.

Anonymous said...

I too have had a little Donizetti awakening this fall, the result of seeing Lucrezia Borgia and the Met broadcast of Anna Bolena in quick succession.

Anna Bolena is the better piece, mainly because of a less preposterous libretto (both librettos are by Felice Romani, who seems to me insufficiently recognized these days as a great librettist -- he also wrote Norma, La Sonnambula, and Il Turco in Italia, another terrific piece of writing). It also got the better performance, mainly because of having the better diva. Netrebko may not be the coloratura equal of those two or three women who spring readily to mind, but that was a really honest, musical, and dramatically committed performance, and within her limits she sounded great. Fleming, well, more and more it seems to me she wishes she were Barbra Streisand -- good luck with that!

What impressed me in both operas is the superb shaping and pacing of so many scenes, the way arias flow into extended ensembles, the placement of climaxes, the grandeur of the big moments. They may not have as many hit tunes as Lucia or L'Elisir, but dramatically I think they're more interesting. The worst thing you can say about them is that they wouldn't survive a mediocre performance, as Lucia and L'Elisir can and often do.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I saw Anna Bolena in the fall of 1995 and remember very little about it except the excellent mad scene at the end and the giant hounds - probably Scottish deerhounds - in one scene. Uh, I remember that there IS an excellent mad scene, but I don't remember the music.

I buy your comparison of Fleming and Netrebko. There is something about Fleming's delivery both on and off stage that makes me disbelieve everything she sings or says. I cannot pin it down, but there's something that screams "Fake!" to me, where Swenson always sounded sincere.

I think that I am never going to like Elisir, but I find myself all of a sudden interested in seeing Lucia again. I've seen it only once, in the late 90's with Ruth Ann Swenson and Ramon Vargas, who were both great, and strong singers in the remaining roles large and small. I'd go for Damrau, probably not Dessay.

I'm now sorry I didn't go to the Anna Bolena HD broadcast!

Anonymous said...

Remember that Fleming was 52 when you saw her and quite a bit past her prime, in a role that is not her Fach (by her own admission). The last year when she was consistently doing really great world class singing was probably 2009, and her greatest period, when the voice was at its plush peak, was the decade 1993-2003ish starting with the Pesaro Armida. In the 90s the voice was by no means small - the shrinking has been a gradual thing since her prime, and inconsistent too - I heard performances in 2013 that were much firmer, and fuller than in 2011/12 for instance.

Her 1998 Lucrezia Borgia can be found easily online and is truly stunning vocally, whether you agree with the interpretive aspects or not. I think it was a mistake for her to sing this role so late in her career, but schedules run so far in advance for star singers, that it can be very difficult for singers to predict what will and wont be vocally appropriate in four or five years time. It's annoying for the audience and annoying for the artist who doesn't get to present their best work, but it's the legacy of Pavarotti and Domingo and no one seems that concerned about changing it.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yes, I think singing this particular role at this point in her career was a mistake for Fleming.

Saying that Swenson had the larger voice isn't the same as saying Fleming's was small, but I do remember being surprised by the difference. This particular gala was during her dead prime, by the way, in the mid/late 90s.