“LUCREZIA BORGIA” – A Hard Act To Swallow at San Francisco Opera

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Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

San Francisco Opera’s third production this season, Donizetti’s LUCREZIA BORGIA, is not the charmer the composer may have hoped for and all but explains why his musical take on the mistress of poison sits on the generic side of his greater works, Lucia di Lammermoor and L’Elisir d’Amore. In the title role, renowned soprano Renée Fleming is very effective in her characterization, but a disappointment vocally in a part designed for a hardier voice and one with more agile coloratura. As the “Duke Alfonso” – husband to the despised Lucrezia – the bright and sonorous vocals of Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowalijow peaked to perfection in his first act aria, “Vieni! la mia vendetta”. The mezzo/contralto vocals of Elizabeth DeShong, in the trouser role of “Maffio Orsini”, proved to be delightfully exciting and flexible in the Act III drinking song (the Brindisi), “Il segreto per esser felici”. Michael Fabiano, as Lucrezia’s illegitimate son “Gennaro”, is a flashy and romantic lyric tenor. Marking his San Francisco debut, Michael has performed the role with English National Opera, and includes Donizetti’s “Edgardo” (Lucia) and “Nemorino” (L’Elisir) in his repertoire.

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Vitalij Kowaljow (Duke Alfonso) and Renée Fleming (Lucrezia Borgia)
Production photos by Cory Weaver

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Michael Fabiano (Gennaro)

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Act III – Ao Li, Elizabeth DeShong, Michael Fabiano, Brian Jagde and Austin Kness

Under the brilliant direction of Ian Robertson, the San Francisco Opera Chorus can outsing and override the usually static nature of any Donizetti ensemble. The composer’s crowds are invariably homogenous in their toasting scenes, in their debauchery (if any), their stealth, their joy, their contempt, their horror, their outrage, etc. If only director Pascoe could have staged a believable street brawl and found weaponry for the brawlers that didn’t resound the fake whack of a smurf bat.

Besides the implausible nature of the opera itself, there are a number of problems with this production designed and directed by John Pascoe. The curtain opens to reveal a large gold insignia – “BORGIA” – suspended above the stage and suggesting the power held by the Italian family. The problem is that the emblem also resembles a department store logo or crest of an upscale commercial enterprise, i.e., “Fabergé”. The moment it disappears, the fashionisti emerge. And for the early 1500s and designer Pascoe they are a glittering, heavily embroidered wily bunch into sci-fi faux leather, metal bras, and punkish blonde up-swept fright wigs. Milling among them is the overly glamorous, ultimately notorious Lucrezia Borgia (will Ms Fleming’s real hair please stand up?) who assumes she can go unnoticed, providing she covers her face with a golden mask on a stick. Right. Five minutes later the plaza is a riot of body guards and angry factions chanting the names of friends and relatives she has poisoned to death. Lucrezia manages to avoid it all, of course, but not until her long-lost illegitimate and permanently bare-chested fey soldier-boy son has suddenly developed a crush on her. Madre mio!

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ACT I – Elizabeth DeShong (Maffio Orsini), Michael Fabiano (Gennaro) and Renée Fleming (Lucrezia Borgia)

Unlike the life-long bonds of the two leading male characters in San Francisco Opera’s current production of Heart of a Soldier – which is reflected in the original intentions of Donizetti and his librettist Felice Romani in the development of “Gennaro” and “Orsini” – director John Pascoe is compelled to demonstrate that gay men have always had a global presence in the military. In Donizetti’s opera, Gennaro had saved the life of Maffio Orsini during a battle. The two then swore their allegiance to each other and vowed to both live and die together. At the same time, a soothsayer hung a dark cloud over the friends – warning them to stay away from Lucrezia Borgia. Pascoe stretches the friends’ relationship into a sexual union – furnishing the tenor and mezzo-soprano with two elongated moments of heavy-duty kissing, which is followed by an agreement that they will party the night away and remain in Ferrara – despite its being Borgia territory and in spite of Gennaro being attracted to its murdering mistress who he later finds out is his own mother and only after she has unintentionally poisoned him. It’s complicated.

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LUCREZIA BORGIA — Renée Fleming

Unfortunately, composer Donizetti did not employ his fantastic skills with both romantic and military themes to create a work that would gloriously unfold the ardent – and, most likely, secret – love of two gay men who are also committed to military service. Pascoe’s dramatic license does not broaden our appreciation of the opera nor does it add depth to the performances of Michael Fabiano and Elizabeth DeShong. Rather, the choice seems arbitrary, out-of-the-blue, and patronizing. Moreover, it is just plain silly.

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Michael Fabiano and Elizabeth DeShong

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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