Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Donizetti Diamond in the Rough

Lucrezia Borgia (1833)
Gaetano Donizetti
Caramoor Opera (Bel Canto at Caramoor)

July 12, 2014

The Italian Pavilion at Caramoor
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lei: After being blown away by Roberto Devereux at Carnegie Hall last month, it was a pleasure to discover yet another rarely performed Donizetti gem at the Caramoor Bel Canto festival. We got to Katonah in the early afternoon so we had time to enjoy the gorgeous Italian-style gardens dotted with modern sound installations, attend intriguing panel discussions that fleshed out topics such as Victor Hugo in opera and Donizetti’s influence on Verdi, listen to a pleasant bel canto recital by the Caramoor young artists program and leisurely picnic in a bucolic setting feeling very much like Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe. By the time we got to the evening performance we were already bewitched by Caramoor’s charms, and their Lucrezia Borgia conducted by a high energy Will Crutchfield only made things better.

Lui: The opera’s plot is a tight succession of juicy dramatic tableaux that revolve around the anti-heroine Lucrezia Borgia: a fierce and reckless ruler with a penchant for disposing of her enemies with poisoned wine. Hated by many but possessively adored by Alfonso D’Este, her current jealous husband, Lucrezia kindles a motherly affection for her illegitimate son, Gennaro, who, of course, loathes the Borgias. Little does he know that he too is descended of that line. As in other Donizetti operas, the tension between the leading lady’s public role (as bloody ruler) and her private sentiments (as tender mother) creates explosive drama.

Mother and son in full cry
Lei: The duets between Lucrezia and her son Gennaro are often heart wrenching, particularly in the Prologue, when he confides in her his desire to be reunited with the mother he has never known (“Io non la vidi mai”). In Act I, when Gennaro is in trouble for having vandalized the “Borgia” sign (by removing the “B” and leaving “Orgia”), he prays to his unknown mother, who is simultaneously being coerced into poisoning him, only to immediately remedy that by administering an antidote. These mother-son exchanges culminate in the final scene, when Lucrezia reveals his identity to him (“Un Borgia sei”) and begs him not to commit matricide (“Ti risparmio un fallo orrendo, il tuo sangue non versar”). As in Verdi’s Rigoletto, likewise based on a play by Hugo (and conveniently paired Lucrezia Borgia in this year’s Caramoor program), Lucrezia’s vendetta backfires in a highly tragic finale where she ends up killing her own son, having poisoned him (again!) but with no time to save him.

Bosom buddies: Gennaro and Orsini
Lui: Who knows why this action packed and fiery pseudo-historical drama isn’t performed more often. In 1904 when the Metropolitan Opera last gave it a day at court, with no less than Enrico Caruso in the role of Gennaro, a reviewer for the New York Times brusquely wrote it off. Some say its because it lacks a central love interest. After the title character, Maffio Orsini occupies the center of the opera. Orsini is a dynamic trouser role composed to be sung by a mezzo-soprano. His/her arias were among the highlights of the night, starting with “Nella fatal di Rimini,” the first aria of the opera. The Orsini character occupies the same narrative and emotional space that the Duke occupies in Rigoletto. In his respect, rather than a love interest, this particular Hugo play (and Donzietti’s treatment of it) emphasizes the theme of male camaraderie. The strength of the bond between the two is particularly evident early in Act II, when Gennaro is about to leave (and thus escape death) but Orsini, deeply offended by his friend’s parting, convinces him to stay because their destinies are tied together. Their duet at the end of this specific scene is emotionally charged with joyful love, as is the libretto:

Sia qual vuolsi il tuo destino, 
Esso è mio: lo giuro ancora.
Mio Gennaro!
Caro Orsino!
Teco sempre ... o viva, o mora. 
Qual due fiori a un solo stelo, 
Qual due fronde a un ramo sol,
Noi vedremo sereno il cielo.
O saremo curvati al suol.*

Likening their affectionate bond to two flowers on one stem and two leaves on one branch, Orsini and Gennaro embody the classical ideal of friendship as the sharing of one soul in bodies twain. It is a moving moment in the score and occupies the space that would otherwise be reserved for a romantic subplot. Perhaps good, old-fashioned friendship does not appeal to audiences in quite the same way as a steamy love story. There is real feeling between Orsini and Gennaro, just as there seems to be between Gilda and the Duke in Verdi’s masterpiece.  

Lei: Rigoletto’s musical similarities with Lucrezia Borgia are astonishing, so much that I thought at many points: “This sounds so Verdian,” while of course I should have rather said that Verdi sounds “Donizettian.” The first time I heard Orsini’s drinking song, for example, I immediately thought about the opening party scene in Rigoletto, and that is just one of many passages that resonated with an anxiety of influence. The plots of the two operas also have a lot of common themes, which should not come as a surprise since both operas are based on Victor Hugo plays (Lucrèce Borgia and Le roi s’amuse). The infausto vaticinio by a cavaliere who prophesies that Orsini and Gennaro will die together and that they should beware the Borgias is not so different from Monterone’s maledizione. The tender duets between Lucrezia and her son Gennaro are poignantly reminiscent of those between Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda. Donizetti’s leading lady is as morally crooked as Rigoletto is physically deformed. The lurking spy Gubetta finds his echo in the shady assassin Sparafucile. And the list could go on.

Husband and wife go head to head
Lei: It was a semi-staged show with the orchestra on stage and the singers in the foreground in eveningwear and doing only a bit of acting. All performers were so stellar that I did not miss costumes and scenes but, rather, could focus entirely on the music and the drama, also thanks to the excellent acoustics of the Venetian theater. All singers had excellent Italian diction so I was not even distracted by the supertitles.

Christophoros Stamboglis sings Alfonso d'Este
Lui: One of the musical highlights of the night was the epic confrontation in Act II, in which soprano Angela Meade’s Lucrezia Borgia and bass Christophoros Stamboglis’s Duke of Ferrara go head to head over whether or not to poison Gennaro. In their ferocious singing they really brought the power struggle between headstrong husband and wife savagely to life. It was without a doubt one of the most vivid musical moments of the evening. Even though it was only a semi-staged show, both singers really let themselves get carried away with the emotions of the scene and together they achieved the kind of intensity of heightened emotion that only truly talented interpreters/singers of great opera can achieve. When Lucrezia reminds her husband that he better be careful since she’s a Borgia with a track record of getting rid of her spouses, Meade was all fangs and barbed threats. Her musical rage was scaring, in a crescendo of regal fury that literally made the air vibrate and the public gasp.

Angela Meade as Lucrezia Borgia
Lei: Angela Meade’s Lucrezia was on fire. Her voice has sheer power and agility, commanding bel canto fireworks but also delivering extraordinarily tender moments. Her range and expressivity were impressive. In her opening aria, while she laments that everybody hates her (“m’aborre ognuno”) and lovingly contemplates her sleeping son, Meade was profoundly lyrical and moving. This soprano is getting better every time I see her and I cannot wait to see her again. Her schedule will bring her back to New York for Guglielmo Tell (Carnegie Hall, December), Verdi’s Requiem (NY Philharmonic, January) and Ernani (Met, March/April).

Tamara Mumford
Michele Angelini
Mezzo-soprano TamaraMumford as Orsini was a revelation. She was high energy and embodied the male role with sass, wearing tight black pants, stilettos and a sexy white tuxedo jacket. The intensity of her acting matched her singing while she perfectly delivered the many layers of the Orsini role: from his chilling opening monologue that so succinctly sets the tone for the evil streak that runs through everything Borgia (“dov’è Lucrezia è morte”), to tender friendship moments with Gennaro, to the joyful drinking songs that open and close the opera. While reading Mumford’s biography I realized that we actually saw her before at the Met (singing smaller roles like Smeaton in Anna Bolena and Margaret in Wozzeck), Orsini is definitely a beefier part, that put this mezzo-soprano front and center and really allowed us to appreciate her.

Tenor Michele Angelini brought freshness to his portrayal of Gennaro. Although he was a bit dwarfed by the ladies’ firepower at the beginning, he warmed up after the first act and grew stronger throughout the opera. As an actor he embodied the right blend of arrogance and naiveté. Despite being an orphan who is a bit lost in the world, he is also at the same time independent minded and relatively sure of himself. Angelini brought out several of this character’s many layers.
Joseph Charles Beutel
Hans Tashjian
Zachary Altman

There was really not a weak link to be found, right down to the minor characters. Bass-baritone JosephCharles Beutel had great stage presence and a deep, well-rounded tone as Lucrezia’s spy Gubetta. His singing particularly raged in the fiery confrontation with Orsini in Act II. Baritone Zachary Altman had probably five minutes tops on stage as Astolfo (another villain at La Borgia’s service), and in so little time he was bewitching, extremely charismatic, with very clear diction and deep, expressive singing, that kept me on the edge of my seat – definitely a singer to look out for. Another artist that had limited but excellent stage presence was bass Hans Tashjian (as Don Apostolo Gazella, one of the anti-Borgia fellas), whom we discovered last year in dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and will look forward to seeing again in that same company’s Macbeth later this summer.

Lei & Lui

The Sunken Garden at Caramoor
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
* O thy fortune, whatever it may be, / Shall be mine, again I swear it, / Life or death, together we share it. / My Gennaro / Dear Orsini / Twin-born flowers, in union growing, / Twin-born leaflets upon a branch, / We show one smile, if summer be glowing, / ‘Neath the tempest we equally blanch.

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