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Motherhood Versus Friendship

Teatro Verdi
01/17/2020 -  & January 18, 19, 21, 23, 25, 2020
Gaetano Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia
Carmela Remigio*/Lidia Fridman (Lucrezia Borgia), Dongho Kim*/Abramo Rosalen (Don Alfonso), Stefan Pop*/Deniz Leone (Gennaro), Cecilia Molinari*/Veta Pilipenko (Maffio Orsini), Mortoharu Takei (Jeppo Liverotto), Rustem Eminov (Don Apostol Gazella), Dario Giorgelé (Ascanio Petrucci), Dax Velenich (Olofrrno Vitellozzo), Giuliano Pelizon (Gubetta), Andrea Schifaudo (Rustighello), Giovanni Palumbo (Astolfo), Roberto Miani (Un Coppiere)
Coro del Teatro Giuseppe Verdi di Trieste, Francesca Tosi (Chorus Master), Orchestra del Teatro Giuseppe Verdi di Trieste, Roberto Gianola (conductor)
Andrea Bernard (stage direction), Alberto Beltrame (sets), Elena Beccaro (costumes), Marco Alba (lighting)

Trieste is one of Italy’s hidden jewels. This is an unusual and magnificent city: some 150 kilometre East of Venice, it is Italy’s Easternmost city bordering present day Slovenia and the Adriatic. Due to the Republic of Venice’s increasing encroachment on Istrian and Dalmatian cities on the Adriatic, Trieste placed itself under the protection of the Hapsburgs to avoid being annexed by La Serenissima as early as the late 14th century. More than six centuries later, it became part of a united Italy after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. Previously Austria’s port on the Adriatic, its importance diminished after it joined Italy. It became even less important after WWII when it bordered then-Socialist Yugoslavia. After a century as part of Italy, it still maintains its uniqueness: its palazzi are distinctly Hapsburg, it has the most amazing café culture, and it even has it has an operetta tradition. The city has many historic cafés that feel like Vienna much more than Turin or Rome. Many of these cafés have regular musical and cultural evenings reminiscent of Vienna in Schubert’s time.

As far as opera is concerned, it has a jewel of a theatre, Teatro Verdi, after the composer. It saw the première of two of his works, Il corsaro (1848) and Stiffelio (1850) as well as the premières of operas by Salieri, Nicolai, Mayr and Smareglia. Built in 1801, it is a hybrid with an interior similar to Venice’s La Fenice and an exterior reminiscent of Milan’s La Scala.

Lucrezia Borgia, premiered in 1833, is possibly Donizetti’s best opera seria. Felice Romano’s excellent libretto is based on Victor Hugo’s Lucrèce Borgia, created earlier that same year. Hugo’s well written play makes an effective opera. Unusual in bel canto operas, Lucrezia Borgia has no love story. The central themes are the friendship between Gennaro and Orsino and the maternal love of Lucrezia for her son Gennaro. Rumored to have slept with her brother Cesare and her father Pope Alexander VI, the result of her incestuous relationship was her son Gennaro, entrusted to a fisherman and ignorant of his origins. Lucrezia keeps a discreet eye on her son and this attention is mistaken for a love affair by her husband, Duke Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara. When Gennaro and his friends deface the crest of the Borgias, removing the B and transforming the name to Orgia (orgy), Duke Alfonso’s henchmen apprehend him. Unaware it was her own son who defaced her family’s crest, Lucrezia demands revenge and is given a choice between killing the culprit by stabbing or poison. A first class poisoner herself, she opts for poison, and when left alone with her dying son, she gives him the antidote and begs him to flee. Still intent on punishing Gennaro’s friends, she invites them under an assumed name, Princess Negroni, to a feast. Unfortunately, Gennaro did not flee but joined his friends at Negroni’s party. After having had them poisoned with Sicilian wine, Lucrezia appears to her guests to triumphantly announce her revenge. She discovers her son in the group. Gennaro refuses her antidote as the quantity is insufficient for him as well as his friends. Furious, he attempts to kill her, but Lucrezia begs him not to commit matricide, thus revealing to him that he is a dreaded Borgia himself and that she is his mother. As Gennaro dies, the grief-stricken mother stabs herself to death.

The plot is compact, dramatic and powerful. Unlike most bel canto dramatic operas that revolve around an impossible love, this opera is not dominated by a loving couple. There is balance between four principal characters: a dominant Lucrezia, loving mother but also wife of Ferrara’s duke and infamous intriguer, a cruel, jealous and domineering Duke of Ferrara, a brave but rather naive son, Gennaro, who ignores his origins and a loving best friend, Orsini. This quartet is reminiscent of the best in Italian opera (Il trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, Don Carlos, Aida, La forza del destino and La Gioconda) and it may extend to a quintet or a sextet of characters rather than the predictable loving couple of bel canto operas. This equilibrium of characters was Meyerbeer’s contribution to opera and the essence of “Grand Opera”. It is also a difficult and often expensive recipe to have four first rate star singers. This is perhaps why Donizetti’s best opera is rarely performed. The recent successful TV series, The Borgias, has fortunately revived the interest in the opera. The return of Donizetti’s masterpiece after over an absence of 150 years from Trieste’s Teatro Verdi is evidence.

In recent history, eminent Lucrezia Borgias have been Montserrat Caballé, Leyla Gencer and Joan Sutherland. While Alfredo Kraus and Jaime Aragall have been the leading Gennaros. Obviously, such heights are hard to attain and it is easier to cast other less demanding Donizetti operas, or at least one demanding less star power.

Teatro Verdi’s cast was felicitous: all leading four principals were first rate. Carmela Remigio is a major bel canto singer and it is as such that she interprets the title role, stressing the pathos as well as the role’s vocalità. Some may have wanted more bite in the interpretation, though I find that in most cases less is more. It would have been easy to depict a more overwhelming Lucrezia, but the fragility needed in the final scene wouldn’t have been credible. Rumanian tenor Stefan Pop impressed with his ease in the upper register. However, he is not as good an actor as he is a singer. As is often the case nowadays, stage directors transform his friendship with Gennaro into a homosexual love story. Stefan Pop was quite bashful in such scenes. A contrario, mezzo Cecilia Molinari was as accomplished an actress as she was a singer. In her posture, movements and demeanour, she was a convincing mauvais garcon. Her noble mezzo has the right timbre for the role; not too feminine or too earthy. Korean bass Dongho Kim was a convincing brutish Duke of Ferrara, despite a voice that is more baritonal that one hopes for in this role. The supporting roles were well cast.

The sets were rather modest, but there was no need for a fabulous Ducal palace or a dazzling party at Principessa Negroni’s palace, when one is so enthralled with the action and the superlative singing. The costumes were appropriate but not brilliant. Most appealing was Lucrezia’s dress in the final scene. Duke Alfono’s henchmen were menacingly dressed in black, but their costumes did not evoke 15th century mercenaries. Unfortunately, the eye masques made them look like characters in an Offenbach operetta rather than threatening ruffians. Some “innovative” ideas were rather unnecessary, such as opening with a pantomime of a young Lucrezia nursing her baby who was then snatched by her father, in Papal dress, during a moment of inattention. Perhaps this helps explain the story to a modern public, increasingly more ignorant of history and too lazy to read the program. The cradle was used as a prop throughout the production. In the prologue, a cradle on stage is broken when Gennaro’s friends reveal to him that the beautiful lady he is talking to is the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. That broken cradle is seen in the First Act’s Finale when Gennaro drinks the Duke’s poison, and again in the final scene when Lucrezia witnesses her son’s death. It is a modest idea that was rather overused. Lucrezia’s death was too gruesome, more reminiscent of verismo operas than bel canto. It is to be noted that this final aria, “Era desso il mio figlio,” was added by Donizetti upon the insistence of the creator of the title role, Henriette Méric-Lalande, as a bravura showpiece with demanding coloratura. The composer removed it for later performances. Today, it is almost always performed by equally demanding sopranos.

Ossama el Naggar



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