Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Lucrezia Borgia, ENO

Film director Mike Figgis has worked in London fairly recently:

OK, so this Timecode reworking for TfL hasn't got much to do with Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia that Figgis has directed for English National Opera. But then the films that he has assembled in place of the overture and inbetween each act don't have much to do with the opera either. I think the idea is to provide an enriched context for the staged drama. In fact its almost entirely counterproductive: it's in Italian, though the opera is sung in English; the actors are different from the singers playing the roles; the contemporary dress-as-period-parody costuming isn't carried through onto the stage, where period costumes are used. Worst of all, the films have a separate soundtrack, some of it Donizetti, but some of it not. I found it best to think of them as commercial breaks in a broadcast of the opera.

The opera itself is inoffensive and has moments of good lighting and design. It's clear though that Figgis doesn't know what to do with such a large frame, i.e. the proscenium arch. Everything is very static, centred and symmetrical. The full expanse of the stage is opened up, and the characters stranded at the front. The second act promises respite with a throne dais brought to the front to focus the space but the final act capitulates to a Peter Greenaway-style last supper arrangement (prefigured in a film) which simply traps the characters behind a table.

The singing, thankfully, belied this sorry staging. Claire Rutter's quiet notes were the highlight of flawless coloratura, really drawing the audience in (I might add that this was one of the quietest, most attentive ENO audiences I've even sat amongst). Michael Fabiano's tragic Gennaro took the English in his stride to produce a lovely liquid lyric sound, the most magnetic of the evening. Elizabeth DeShong's cross-dressed Orsini and Alastair Miles' Alfonso were first class as well (though, naturally their arias are not as high wire as those of the high principals) and I particularly liked the easy tenor of Jonathan Stoughton, singing Vitellozzo, one of the Republican nobles.

Paul Daniel's English translation is serviceable but demands mention for the occasional duff corner ('We've scared off all the ladies/it's like we've gone to Hades!' being particularly ripe). However, his conducting was really very good indeed, sympathetic to the singers both in flexibility and balance. Clearly ENO have the resources to do worthwhile things with mothballed gems of the repertoire such as this. However, using celebrated directors from outside the discipline should, on the basis of what I have seen here, remain an exceptional novelty for everyone's benefit.

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