Acclaimed soprano Renee Fleming made her long-awaited Washington National Opera debut Saturday in the company’s compelling new production of Gaetano Donizetti‘s “Lucrezia Borgia” at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
The wonderfully traditional yet slightly post-punk sets, design and costuming were created by stage director John Pascoe, and the WNO orchestra was helmed with sensitivity and precision by the company’s general director, Placido Domingo.
Donizetti’s 1834 opera, one of his earliest masterpieces, focuses on the emotional and political trials and tribulations of one of the Renaissance era’s most notorious characters, famed, rightly or wrongly, for mastering the fine art of poisoning.
Born in 1480, Lucrezia was almost certainly more complex than her legend allows, having suffered from childhood as the political pawn of her brutal, scheming father, Roderigo, who later became Pope Alexander VI. Roderigo and other male Borgia co-conspirators shuttled Lucrezia in and out of marriages as suited the ephemeral political alliances of the day. In the process, she bore an illegitimate son - said by some to have been sired by her brother Caesare. This son - Gennaro in the opera - figures prominently in Donizetti’s opera when her third husband, Duke Alfonso, mistakes him as Lucrezia’s lover.
Packing a potent dramatic punch, “Lucrezia” is performed somewhat infrequently because of its immense demands on the lead soprano and tenor singing Lucrezia and Gennaro. Fortunately, this production shines with Miss Fleming and the spectacular young tenor Vittorio Grigolo in these difficult key roles.
Miss Fleming sings Lucrezia with an understated elegance in her early scenes, transforming her often-cliched character into the tragic figure she almost certainly was. Her exquisite, silvery voice is phenomenally passionate yet absolutely accurate. In her final “mad scene,” she effortlessly navigates complex vocal figures and emotional extremes in a way that directs the listener away from her artfulness and into the soul of her character.
In Mr. Grigolo, the company couldn’t have found a better. Having ably portrayed Rudolfo here in last season’s “La Boheme,” Mr. Grigolo had a better showcase for the immense power of his voice on Saturday, singing the role of the conflicted Gennaro with a vocal clarity and tonal shaping that matched those of Miss Fleming.
In the substantial trouser role of Maffio Orsini, Gennaro’s soldier-friend, mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich proved another standout, with a swaggering physical presence that augmented her own impressive vocal gifts. Veteran bass Ruggero Raimondi excelled in the key role of the ominous Duke Alfonso; the numerous supporting singers demonstrated a high degree of professionalism as well.
There are always a few problems on opening night, and this otherwise fine production was no exception. The chorus was at times muffled or completely buried by the orchestra, and both ensembles were not infrequently at odds on the tempo.
A bit more baffling was the stage treatment accorded best buds Genarro and Orsini, whose passions turned decidedly gay in the final stanza. Pushing the envelope here is a valid directorial choice, but, if I read correctly, at least one pronoun reference in the surtitles implies Orsini is female. I, for one, was a little confused.
Fortunately, none of these quibbles detracts from the outstanding work of the soloists, but they should be attended to before the next performance.
A final note: Patrons should be aware that Miss Fleming is alternating the role of Lucrezia with Sondra Radvanovsky, another exciting soprano, in the Nov. 7, 15, and 17 performances.
WHEN YOU GO
STARS: 3 1/2
WHO: Washington National Opera
WHAT: Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”
WHERE: Opera House, Kennedy Center
WHEN: Nov. 5, 7, 11 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 9 at 2 p.m.; and Nov. 15 and 17 at 7 p.m.
TICKETS AND INFORMATION: Tickets $25 to 300; call 202/295-2400, 800/US-OPERA, or visit www.dc-opera.org.
MAXIMUM RATING FOUR STARS