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Monday, September 26, 2011

SF Opera Makes Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia Beautiful Where More Darkness Is Needed

Posted By on Mon, Sep 26, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Renée Fleming (Lucrezia Borgia) and Michael Fabiano (Gennaro) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Renée Fleming (Lucrezia Borgia) and Michael Fabiano (Gennaro)

Lucrezia Borgia, by Gaetano Donizetti

@War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove)

Thought experiment: Picture Edward Hopper's Nighthawks done up in sunny springtime pastels. Now imagine Lady Macbeth pausing midsleepwalk to reel off a tender rendition of "The Rainbow Connection." If either of these visions left you moved rather than bemused, you may enjoy SF Opera's first presentation of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia more unreservedly than we did.

The current production, designed and directed by John Pascoe, illustrates the degree to which a successful opera depends on more than just splendid singing. (And the vocal performances, from megastar soprano Renée Fleming on down through the cast's firmament, were irreproachable -- more on those in a bit). Like Donizetti's other works, Borgia exemplifies the style of opera known as bel canto -- literally, "beautiful song" or "beautiful singing" -- which features intricate melodies and requires performers to execute a dazzling assortment of vocal embellishments and flourishes. While bel canto opera is by no means restricted to the telling of beautiful stories, an odd disjunction between tone and content undermined the impact of Friday's premiere.

For, in contrast to Donizetti's limpid score (flawlessly interpreted by guest conductor Riccardo Frizza), the subject matter of Borgia is very dark indeed. The ruthless, universally reviled Lucrezia infiltrates a party in hostile territory in search of Gennaro, the illegitimate son she had to abandon when he was an infant. Gennaro misreads maternal affection as romantic interest and falls hard for Mom, engendering the wrath of Lucrezia's tyrannical husband, Alfonso d'Este. In the ensuing episodes of vengeance and countervengeance, Lucrezia poisons her son not once but twice -- intentionally the first time (with antidote at the ready) to save him from a more efficacious mode of execution, and then accidentally (and fatally) as part of a revenge ploy gone horrifically sideways. That Lucrezia, too, kicks off in the end hardly requires a spoiler alert.

Michael Fabiano (Gennaro) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Michael Fabiano (Gennaro)

Yet this darkness only occasionally came through in a convincing manner, resulting in a performance that felt like less than the sum of its parts. It's difficult to say whether this flaw is inherent to the opera, or whether it's this particular production that fails to access the story's disturbing essence. As absurd as this might sound, the effortless beauty and polish of the vocal performances seemed at times to work at cross-purposes with the opera's dramatic thrust.

Only bass Vitalij Kowaljow as Alfonso consistently combined virtuosic vocals with an appropriately dark emotional register -- and it didn't hurt that he got to strut about in an ensemble from Darth Vader's closet. Fleming sang the title role with tremendous fluency and grace, yet she didn't quite realize the fiery, tumultuous nature that makes Lucrezia one of the more psychologically complex operatic heroines.

Tenor Michael Fabiano as Gennaro and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong in the trousers role of Maffio Orsini demonstrated lovely vocal compatibility and a touching rapport, as befits two more-than-just-friends who have pledged loyalty in life and death. (Unfortunately, this production pushed the homoerotic dynamic well beyond its naturally supported limits -- witness the extended Act III lip-lock between Gennaro and Orsini, after which the two enthusiastically depart to scope out the ladies at a party.) Among the smaller roles, baritone Igor Vieira stood out in an engaging turn as Lucrezia's servant Gubetta.

Vitalij Kowaljow (Duke Alfonso) and Daniel Montenegro (Rustighello) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Vitalij Kowaljow (Duke Alfonso) and Daniel Montenegro (Rustighello)

The undercurrent of dramatic incoherence was furthered by the production's confused aesthetic. It seems that Pascoe aimed to present a stylized interpretation of 16th-century Italy, but his costumes were comically evocative of such phenomena as online role-playing games, Star Wars, and (in Gennaro's case) '80s hair-metal bands. In the first act, when Lucrezia gazes adoringly upon the lad as he dozes in a gold-lamé getup, any doubts about his parentage are dispelled -- it's truly a sight that only a mother could love.

SF Opera's Lucrezia Borgia continues through Oct. 11 at the War Memorial Opera House. Admission is $21-$389. Sung in Italian, with English supertitles.

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Emily Hilligoss

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