Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Lucrezia Borgia: Deep Space Nine

November 06, 2008

Kate Aldrich, Vittorio Grigolo, and Renée Fleming
Photo: Karin Cooper/WNO 2008

Yes, I did get to see one of the four Renée Fleming Lucrezia Borgia performances at Washington National Opera on my current trip out of town. And guess what? The show wasn’t half bad. In fact, it’s thoroughly enjoyable despite the obvious problems. It is true that Borgia will not be a role for which Fleming will be fondly remembered. She does not have the bel canto chops to pull this off despite many other charms. But it was still a remarkable vocal turn and honestly I can think of a couple dozen performers regularly performing roles with far less success and much greater frequency than this. Fleming’s an opera mega-star at the top of her game. Even her missteps are more interesting than most people’s big successes.

If you want an aesthetic fall guy, take aim at conductor Placido Domingo. The orchestra was never consistently anything, speeding up and slowing down seemingly at random. Domingo on a couple of occasions backed everyone off at a musical climax for the benefit of the vocalists, which kind of killed the mood in a couple key moments. Despite this, it turns out there were at least three other performers besides Fleming who had no trouble generating their own amount of excitement regardless of what else was going on. Ruggero Raimondi took the role of Duke Alfonso with appropriate gravity. Kate Aldrich, who gave a seriously remarkable performance earlier this year as Queen Elisabeth in Maria Stuarda in San Diego, gave another one here in Washington as Orsini. Both she and Vittorio Grigolo, who played Borgia’s son Gennaro, quite gamely engaged director John Pascoe’s take on the homoerotic subtext of the story. Given that Aldrich had the trouser role, I think many in the audience were still somewhat lost on this point when the two started making out all over each other in the final act. Grigolo has a youthful and athletic voice with an Italianate quality, which is nicely complemented by the fact that he is what we used to call a buff nugg.

But bare chests and spiky blond anime hair does not a production make, and as has been widely reported, Pascoe augmented a rather traditional set with Battlestar Galactica outfits. Fleming gets some black leggings and metallic Gaultier-like corset with giant cape for the final act and a spiky blond wig of her own. Frankly, though, I thought this all worked fairly well. Yes, it’s crazy, but this is a crazy opera and the contrast ensured no one was taking all of this too seriously. It was regal and glam rock at the same time. And how’s this for a bonus, Fleming’s tendency to have a somewhat matronly bearing when performing actually works here when she’s playing a mother - a seriously messed-up one, but a mother nonetheless. Now my only wish was that I had a reason to stay around to see what the incredible Sondra Radvanovsky does with all this on Friday. But I’m moving on.

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