Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Donizetti off the L Train

Lucrezia Borgia 
April 11, 2015 - LightSpace Studios (Brooklyn)

Photo credit: Sam Slaughter 
When I got off the L train at Jefferson Street, I surfaced into a lonely no man’s land of abandoned storefronts, used car dealerships and rusty barbed-wire fences. It felt like an industrial far west, windy and desolate. I sighed and pulled out my phone to google map my destination, doing my best to ignore a guy cat-calling at me from a speeding pick up truck. All of a sudden a cellist briskly walked past me, looking like he knew where he was going. Relieved, I happily put my phone away and rushed to follow the musician, confident that he would lead me to the venue for LoftOpera’s production of one of my most favorite Donizetti operas: the poisonous, heart-wrenching and exciting Lucrezia Borgia.

Photo credit: Sam Slaughter
Photo credit: Sam Slaughter
The streets may have been desolate but the vibe inside LightSpace Studios was as hip and bubbly as the most artsy and edgy gallery opening, the bar handing out Brooklyn lagers, under 30 audience members dangling legging wearing legs from a duplex balcony - definitely not your average NYC opera scene. The only vague indicator of a theatrical performance was a small dimly lit stage curtain at the back of the room, though the focus seemed to rather be a big empty rectangular area at the center of the space, surrounded by folded blankets and few rows of backless benches. Notwithstanding a 30 piece orchestra crumpled in a corner, techno music was pumping and the whole set-up looked a bit too trendy for an opera as grand as Lucrezia. I started to worry, but I shouldn’t have: from the moment the lights and techno music went off, my Donizetti-butchering fears were quickly dissipated as the orchestra led by Sean Kelly masterfully attacked the prologue and remained phenomenal through the opera’s finale. There were a few cuts here and there, but mostly to parts of spies and wingmen of Lucrezia and her husband that really did not detract much from the narrative core of the opera. All costumes were by high fashion Italian maison Etro, which made for a pretty extravagant and luxurious modern take on the original Renaissance setting.

Photo credit: LoftOpera
Soprano Joanna Parisi carried and made the show as Lucrezia. Ms. Parisi has a chesty and supremely agile voice and an intense stage presence. Her Lucrezia was a sexy platinum blonde strutting around on platform heels and jeweled dresses while at the same time rendering the anti-heroine complex emotional spectrum in all its nuances from motherly tenderness to raging fury to vengeful scheming and defeated desperation. The duets with her son Gennaro were deeply moving, while the confrontation with her husband the Duke of Ferrara was the perfect crescendo from a very physical seduction (where she managed to super-humanly sing from his lap while arching her back and dipping her head almost to the floor) to the most pyrotechnic fury. This Lucrezia is not afraid to use any of her weapons, from sex to poisoned wine, to get what she wants. She is a scary powerful tyrant who murders her opponents left and right, yes, but one that cannot be entirely loathed as we see her trapped by her own wrongdoings when it comes to the tragic relationship with her illegitimate son, which is really the emotional core of the opera. Ms. Parisi vividly brought to life the tension between public terror-inducing power and private tender motherly love, as a most viscerally captivating and charismatic Lucrezia.

Photo credit: Ellen Marie Hindson
Photo credit: Sam Slaughter
Photo credit: Triebensee
As it often happens with strong leading ladies when they’re so good, everybody else in the cast was below Parisi, however this disparity did not affect the overall package. Tenor Nikhil Nakval as Gennaro, while not the most handsome voice, was fresh and ardent, his best moments in the duets with Lucrezia. Mezzo Melissa Collom as Maffio Orsini was not in full form (she apparently had a bad cold but sung nevertheless) and it showed as she sounded a bit muffled. Bass Matthew Anchel had impressive stage presence as the Duke of Ferrara, threatening and entitled, but not an equally big voice. Tenor Michael Kuhn as his wingman Rustighello had a small part but was vocally crisp and charismatic. The rest of the cast was comprised of baritone Joel Herold (Gubetta), tenor Spence Viator (Liverotto), bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala (Gazella), bass Andrew Hiers (Petrucci) and tenor Jordan Pitts (Vitellozzo), who all did a terrific job in the chorus scenes, from debonair gallivanting to chillingly belligerent.    

Photo credit: Sam Slaughter

Photo credit: L'Altro
Direction by Laine Rettmer was mostly great, transposing effectively to decadent modern day debauchery the original Renaissance plot. I particularly enjoyed the raucous group scenes (that more than ever reminded me of Rigoletto’s cortigiani) and the take on Lucrezia’s uber-seductive ways. One choice I strongly disagreed with, however, was to have the character of Maffio Orsini be the “sometimes girlfriend” of Lucrezia’s son Gennaro (according to the director’s notes). While Lucrezia lacks a traditional love interest plot point, the male friendship between Gennaro and Orsini fills that space in the most sincere and non-traditional way. Turning this bond from deep male camaraderie (one saves the other’s life in battle and since then the two are bound together) to a fleeting romantic fling just does not work with the plot and most importantly with the libretto, not to mention it cheapens the relationship between the two characters.  But, Rettmer nailed the finale, when Lucrezia in a desperate rage for having killed her own son throws with fury an empty bottle of poisoned wine against the wall with the (B)orgia insignia. The glass bottle shattered and the public roared. Rightly so, as LoftOpera’s production team lead by general manager Brianna Maury delivered a most visceral, electrifying and captivating bel canto performance. The intimate space helped, as one felt the air vibrate and could hear every breath and sigh of the singers. Most importantly, the 1833 Donizetti masterpiece felt more alive and furiously kicking than ever, even to the under-30 leg-dangling audience - evenings like this give hope to opera.  

- Lei

Photo credit: Sam Slaughter

1 comment:

  1. Nice review of a great production. Triebenesee is usually generous about allowing use of his photos when requested and properly linked: https://flic.kr/p/rXprfW