The name Lucrezia Borgia has always been synonymous with poison and Donizetti’s opera from 1833 is awash with poisonous potions. Starring Helena Dix as the infamous Lucrezia, Melbourne Opera’s production is a bel canto extravaganza that showcases the virtuosic vocal talents of one of Australia’s most internationally successful coloratura sopranos.
Although Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia has returned to prominence, partly due Richard Bonynge’s championing of unjustly neglected bel canto repertoire and the sensational vocal gifts of Joan Sutherland, it has not been performed in Melbourne for more than 30 years. This is not surprising given the stringent vocal demands of the title role – demands that few sopranos are capable of meeting.
Donizetti’s masterful way of creating a musically theatrical entrance for his diva of the day is illustrated in the unaccompanied bars of Lucrezia’s opening phrase in the Prologue. Dix has a stunning pianissimo with a spinning tone that appears totally effortless and capable of being sustained indefinitely. It was a magical moment, as the audience seemed almost to hold its collective breath. Throughout the opera, Dix produced a dazzling display of coloratura brilliance, culminating in a final aria, “Era desso il figlio mio”, that showed no waning of power, pinpoint agility or control. What superlative stamina!
An opera company also has to find two other singers capable of meeting Donizetti’s tough vocal challenges in the major roles of Lucrezia’s secret son, Gennaro, and his bosom buddy, Orsini. Tenor James Egglestone has shone in several of Melbourne Opera’s recent productions, his attractive voice robust and ardent. His style of singing was well-suited to the role of Gennaro, but he appeared to be under pressure in the earlier stages of the opera (apparently he was unwell), only giving of his more relaxed best in the duets and trio in Act 2.
In the “pants role” Orsini, mezzo-soprano, Dimity Shepherd was riveting – so much so that I often forgot to look at the surtitles whenever she was on stage. Coupled with her magnetic stage presence was a voice of outstanding range, agility and colour, displayed to dramatic musical effect in the “Brindisi” during the lethal final party scene. She was also a powerful force in the many ensembles. But it was perhaps in the direction of this role that I had certain misgivings regarding director Gary Abrahams’ intentions.
According to his program note, Abrahams wanted “to let the audience know from the outset that they can have fun, and not take it all too seriously”. Ever the ebullient actress, Shepherd certainly knows how to have fun on stage and her energy was an animating force, but it was difficult to see how moving the action to a modern day setting and presenting Orsini as an androgynous David Bowie lookalike added anything to our appreciation of the opera. Would Donizetti really have approved unsavoury activity such as using the side of the party room as a urinal along with a lot of crude groping? When Lucrezia started caressing her son, a context of self-parodying high camp threatened to distort the more serious side of the drama. She seemed in danger of looking like a murderous psychopath unworthy of much sympathy, especially given the opera’s lack of backstory motivation presented in Victor Hugo’s original narrative. The physicality of the interaction between Orsini and Gennaro also posed the danger of upstaging the more important relationship between mother and son. It is to Helena Dix’s great credit that she was able to generate a moving sense of tragedy in the final scene through the persuasive quality of her acting and the expressive beauty of her voice.
Christopher Hillier’s powerful baritone was ideal for the role of Lucrezia’s jealous, overbearing husband, Don Alfonso, his gathered burnished tone somewhat overshadowing the relatively undeveloped voice of promising young tenor Alistair Cooper-Golec, who sang the role of Rustighello, his servant. Rustighello’s part was made more prominent by Abrahams’ direction – an astute decision that enabled Cooper-Golec to create tension and heighten the atmosphere of menace effectively. Baritone Christopher Tonkin also brought dramatic heft to the ambiguous role of Gubetta, his voice vibrant in solo passages and adding substance to the ensembles.
The quartet of Gennaro’s friends: tenors Christopher Busietto and Louis Hurley, baritone Adam Jon, and bass Adrian Tamburini, sang and acted with plenty of gusto. The opening scene was further energised by full-bodied singing from the chorus, setting the opera on a vocally confident footing that was maintained throughout. As Astolfo, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i’s role may have been short-lived, but the splendid, unforced amplitude of his bass voice had the audience longing for more.
Although the orchestra tended to dominate the singers at times, conductor Raymond Lawrence ensured the balance was generally appropriate. The orchestra played commendably on the whole, with fine work from horns and harp at the beginning of the overture setting the tone for a melodious musical experience.
Greg Carroll’s flexible set designs were attractive and functional. An extended polished “lapis lazuli” floor surface, and a series of rises leading to a gleaming back panel provided a sense of luxury and space. Even the floral excesses and pink curtains of the final scene had been well considered for impact and functionality.
Despite certain reservations concerning an overly graphic depiction of a debauched society, with undue emphasis on the homoerotic and Freudian, this production of Lucrezia Borgia offers much to admire. Whether spinning seamless intricate phrases of coloratura bel canto or soaring above the full ensemble, Helena Dix’s singing alone makes this production a rare opportunity that is not to be missed.
Photo credit: Robin Halls.
Heather Leviston reviewed Melbourne Opera’s production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”, presented at the Athenæum Theatre on August 28, 2022.