Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lucrezia Borgia

Donizetti's 1833 opera-biography of Lucrezia Borgia has been hyped to the skies this season at San Francisco Opera, mainly because of the presence in the title role of Renée Fleming. She sang regularly in San Francisco throughout the 1990s, but then shot off into interstellar space during the first decade of the 21st century, becoming too expensive for local consumption. The current run of Lucrezia is her first San Francisco appearance in a staged opera since Der Rosenkavalier of 2001 (from which I still vividly remember her luscious Marschallin).

This time around the Opera people decided to charge a large premium for Fleming tickets. It is of course the height of vulgarity to mention specific sums of money, but anybody who reads the fine print above will not be surprised to hear that this is the most expensive ticket I have ever fished out of an inside pocket to hand over to the usher at the door of any theater.

Was it worth all the hype and the hellacious cost? On the whole, probably not. Which is not to say we didn't have a good time or that we hesitated to join in the standing ovation at the end. This was a sharper, tighter production than last week's Turandot and its high spots were considerably higher. To my surprise, though, most of the Lucrezia high spots revolved around the young tenor Michael Fabiano (at center, above, with Fleming in Venetian mask on the right and the very fine contralto Elizabeth DeShong on the left). It's nice to be reminded that powerful, nuanced singing can actually be combined with a stage presence as convincing as Fabiano's.

Above, Fabiano and DeShong singing about their fear of being murdered and their inseparable loyalty to each other (they are best friends and comrades-in-arms, with the contralto portraying a man, according to the musical conventions of Donizetti's time). Of course in the end they are murdered, and Lucrezia is primarily responsible, even though she knows the secret (unknown to him) that Fabiano is in reality her illegitimate son.

Fleming (seen above with her evil third husband, the Duke of Ferrara, in an earlier presentation of the same production elsewhere) surely looked 100% the glamorous diva from first to last, and in that sense clearly gave the crowd what it came for. Her singing was also quite palpably "beautiful" in tone. So it's a little hard to describe what the drawback was. There seemed often to be a kind of muffled quality, both in the voice and in the physical presence, as if some crucial commitment of energy were lacking. Dancers and instrumentalists and singers will all sometimes talk about the concept of "attack" -- seizing and mastering and staying one step ahead of a musical phrase or a dramatic situation. I kept waiting for Fleming to attack the part, but she seemed content to let it come to her.