Later in the run, this production will be the first live opera to be seen in 3D when it is broadcast to cinemas and on satellite television. With the advance publicity warning of “scenes of a sexual nature”, everything seemed to be in place for a show as three-dimensionally lurid on stage as the story of Lucrezia Borgia is said to have been in real life.
If only. English National Opera has entrusted Donizetti’s opera to film director Mike Figgis, previously untried in the opera house, and his big idea has been to interleave the acts of the opera with filmed episodes of the Borgia family history, staged as costume drama apparently at some expense (is that where Figgis spent all the budget?).
The problem is that the two halves are worlds apart. The sections of film, sumptuously shot outside Rome, linger greedily over the titillation of the Borgias’ sexual violence like a glossy Hollywood biopic, while the opera is so stolid and traditional that it could be a relic from the 1970s out of ENO’s production warehouse. As the film involves some characters and events that are not in the opera, the two jog along in parallel, neither setting sparks off the other.
As far as the opera is concerned, there is nothing going on except the singing, so it is back to square one. In the title role, Claire Rutter has the bel canto style, the top notes, the ability to spin a phrase so that it takes on a beauty of its own – everything except the killer instinct of a Lucrezia Borgia to go out and make the performance her own.
The rest of the cast is also strong. Two Americans – tenor Michael Fabiano, a ringing Gennaro, and mezzo Elizabeth DeShong, strangely asked to play Maffio Orsini as a woman – deliver the goods vocally. When they are onstage, the opera feels in safe hands, as it does with Alastair Miles’s sturdily sung Alfonso.
Without setting the score alight, Paul Daniel is a considerate conductor with a good sense of pace. It is not his fault the opera falls flat. Kicking life into this production would be like trying to raise one of the Borgias’ many corpses from the dead.