Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
The Secret Life of Bs
September 24, 2011
San Francisco Opera opened its third production of the 2011/2012 season on Friday. There was no giant animated flag this time and the orchestra didn’t kick off the show with the National Anthem. Apparently Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia doesn’t stir the same love of country that operas about 9/11 do. However, when the curtain rose, there was a giant sign suspended from above with the name and crest of the Borgia clan. But all things being equal, it might as well have said “Renée” considering this show is first and foremost a star vehicle for America’s most eminent soprano. Ms. Fleming stood below the sign bathed in golden light as her character glanced around at the slow-motion carnage around her. When David Gockley took over the directorship of this company several seasons back, he promised new emphasis and raised new dollars to support bringing the biggest stars back to San Francisco. Part of what that's meant so far is quasi-vanity projects like Placido Domingo’s return to the Bay Area for the first time in over a decade last fall for Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Lucrezia Borgia brings Ms. Fleming back to San Francisco for the first time in a decade in a role that she is not well known for and was the role she was notoriously booed for at La Scala in 1998.
After seeing her sing this again, it is true that anyone with even a passing interest in bel canto technique will not likely be taken with her star turn in this role. She herself suggested in a tweet earlier on Friday (above) that this run of Lucrezia Borgia will serve as a farewell to bel canto roles for her such as Rossini’s Armida, which she has sung at the Metropolitan Opera over the last two seasons. But it must be said that an artist like Renée Fleming does not get to where she is at by turning in unattractive performances, and she does deliver a performance here that is entertaining and masterful in what she is able to accomplish in a role that many observers might not feel she is best suited for. She does manage beautifully smooth lines even if they do lack some of the regular acrobatic embellishments. It’s not a harsh or lazy reading and she acts very well here as a mother with some very serious homicidal tendencies.
There are other lovely voices in the cast. A surprisingly chesty Michael Fabiano is cast as Lucrezia’s son Gennaro who is attracted to this most reviled of women who he does not suspect is his long lost mother. Fabiano is athletic sounding and involving here if not as Italianate as one might wish. His buddy/lover Maffio Orsini is sung by Elizabeth DeShong complete with fake stubble. She provides wonderful contrast in her duets and has great energy with Fabiano, although I found her a little underpowered for my taste in the first act. Perhaps the most completely satisfying performance came from bass Vitalij Kowaljow who wowed audiences in Los Angeles as Wotan last year and will be making several appearances there and here in San Francisco this season. His turn as the Duke was dark and vocally muscular communicating evil with his voice as much with his physical appearance.
The rest of the show’s elements are less promising. Conductor Riccardo Frizza, who led Fleming’s Armida performances in New York, led a rather turgid and lumbering orchestral performance. There was little zing in any of this show musically, and everything sounded leisurely paced. John Pascoe’s 2008 production for Washington National Opera was revived here. I didn’t like it then and I didn’t like it much better on a second viewing with its science fiction inspired costumes and bland castle-wall sets. The only real sacrilege in the current show is the use of "party" as a verb in the English supertitles, but I don't think the physical production itself won many fans. Fabiano manages to pull off Gennaro’s spiky blond wig as well as Vittorio Grigolo did in that previous run. But neither his nor Ms. Fleming’s ample cleavage manages to add much sex or depravity for a story chock full of it. Pascoe doesn't completely ignore the homosexual subtext of this story, but outside of what's in the libretto, you could be forgiven for not noticing it played out on stage otherwise. Come to think of it, for an opera about two serial killers this show can be awfully user friendly at times. Think of it as Dexter with worse costumes.
Which is to say that while San Francisco Opera's run of Lucrezia Borgia came off as underwhelming, it was not unenjoyable. If you come wanting to see and hear a big operatic star and other promising vocal performances you won't be disappointed. You've got until October 11 to see for yourself.
Seeing this production made me really wonder about the direction of SFOpera. As you say, it wasn't unenjoyable, but it did seem to embody a kind of 'hey-this-artform-is-dying-so-why-bother-trying-anything-new' spirit of self-loathing. I felt like I was transported back to 1997.