raging melodrama – but is this really the future of opera?

Nervous: Paula Sides delivers Grit as poisoner Lucrezia Borgia – Richard Hubert Smith

Donizetti’s serious operas have taken far longer to re-establish themselves in the repertory than his scintillating comedies, and I’m not sure this penny-plain staging of creaky melodrama will help Lucrezia Borgia. Based on a play by Victor Hugo, the historical figure of Lucrezia here is a manipulator who appears to have killed relatives of most of the characters on stage. She retains a deep affection for Gennaro, whom her husband Duke Alfonso believes to be her lover, but who is revealed to be her son in the dissolution (in which he dies of poison and refuses an antidote).

And that was about it. Donizetti’s music is appealing, sometimes subtly twisted, often surprisingly light-hearted with its rum-ti-tum rhythms, and demands considerable virtuosity from its singers. It also requires a band backstage and lavish backdrops, but this production, directed by Eloise Lally, is a show made for touring, so a single stranded gondola represents the 1510 Venetian carnival while a great sun tumbles uncomfortably over the scenery and a pair of gates that strangely have to be carried onto the stage is what we see of the Borgia Palace. It looks boring.

But the musical rewards of this new production from English Touring Opera, which is currently favored in its funding by Arts Council England, are significant. It is the first time, to my knowledge, that a Donizetti opera has been performed live here, performed by a period instrument band (Charles Mackerras had previously recorded one), and under Garry Cornelius’ safe and reliable conducting, the dexterous Old Street Band has one penetrating sharpness that gives it expressive impact, especially for brass and wind instruments, and transparent clarity for the strings.

A great cast approaches the intricacies of Donizetti’s writing with courage. The composer wrote his anti-heroine Lucrezia for the late-career soprano Méric-Lalande; here Paula Sides is agile and focused in her high coloratura, beautiful in her final scene, while edgy enough to menacingly remind Alfonso that he is her fourth husband (a line that evokes a rueful laugh), even as Aidan Edwards with his powerful bass storms above her. Thomas Elwin’s touching Gennaro is warm and strongly projected, while the breeches part of Orsini is lightly and cheerfully filled by Katie Coventry, although her Brindisi needs a little more power.

Others come and go, mostly in the five coffins that Lucrezia set up after her poisoning. The show is hailed by an audience who obviously love old-fashioned operas at affordable prices – no problem, but the thought that this somehow represents the future of opera imaginatively reimagined for a new generation is almost as absurd as this plot.

Tour to Poole, Sheffield, Norwich, York, Durham, Chester, Cambridge, Snape Maltings, Canterbury, Cheltenham, Buxton, Leamington Spa, Exeter

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