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November 2, 2008

Renee Fleming, vibrant cast bow in WNO 'Lucrezia'

Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia may never enjoy as comfortable a spot in the repertoire as his Lucia di Lammermoor or L'elisir d'amore, but Washington National Opera's new production makes an awfully strong case for this darkly tragic work.

Renee Fleming in Lucrezia BorgiaSaturday's opening night at the Kennedy Center drew a big, vociferous crowd, thanks largely to the presence of Renee Fleming in the title role. She did not disappoint. The luminous soprano was surrounded by a dynamic cast that included veteran bass Ruggero Raimondi, mezzo Kate Aldrich and tenor Vittorio Grigolo. That WNO general director Placido Domingo was conducting added to the sense of occasion. 

Fleming sang with considerable eloquence of phrase and beauty of tone as she revealed the troubled character of one of history's most notorious women. Lucrezia may be a cold-blooded poisoner when provoked, but the opera posits that she's also a deeply caring mother, and that womanly side is what Fleming brought out to telling effect. There were some cloudy spots in the technique, a few tentative sounds or undefined articulation during coloratura flights. But most of vocalism was warm and involving, and, when she exploited her smoky low register, boldly dramatic. (Strange that Callas never embraced this role; Fleming made plain how much meat there is in it.) 

As Gennaro, the young man who discovers all too tragically that he's a son of the infamous Borgia, the lean and lithe Grigolo turned in a remarkably animated performance. Although his singing could have used subtler tonal coloring, it had an exciting immediacy. It's impossible to miss the tenor's blossoming "star quality." As Alfonso, Lucrezia's jealous and cruel husband, Raimondi offered a forceful characterization. His voice sounded past its prime, but exuded authoritative stylistic flair. Aldrich used her smooth, mellow mezzo imaginatively as Maffio Orsini and provided finely detailed acting. Domingo seemed quite assured on the podium, drawing mostly secure playing from the orchestra and molding the score sensitively.

John Pascoe's production -- he designed the sets and costumes and served as director -- certainly has a Vittorio Grigolo in Lucrezia Borgiadistinctive look. In a note distributed to the press, Pascoe's costumes are said to have a "historical basis with some contemporary graphic elements" and to suggest an "aggressively masculine" image. That would, perhaps, account for Fleming's dominatrix outfit in the final scene, which proved more distracting than theatrically insightful. And Gennaro's nearly disco-worthy costume seemed to have been inspired by one of the more flamboyant numbers sported by Mr. Humphries on the old Brit-com Are You Being Served? There are a few other quibble-y bits, including Genarro's starkly spiked blond coif, which Lucrezia suddenly emulates in the finale. But, for the most part, the visual elements work well within the shadowy world Pascoe has created, a world of towering 16th century Italian walls that frame the well-paced action. The contrast between the physical surroundings and all those fanciful costumes somehow worked (maybe because it was so close to Halloween).

The most striking of Pascoe's directorial flourishes has to do with Gennaro and Maffio. Their more-than-buddies relationship takes on a dimension people in Donizetti's time presumably would never have suspected, let alone dared to explore in an opera house, but which Pascoe has found abundant justification for in the libretto. (The fact that Maffio is a "trouser role" -- opera has a long tradition of women portraying men -- may confuse some unsuspecting folks in the audience.) Lucrezia Borgia is a rare Italian opera without an emphasis on a conventional male-female love story. There's no love between Lucrezia and her husband, and Genarro's initially mistaken belief that Lucrezia is just a passionate female admirer obviously gets straightened out in a hurry. Pascoe has cleverly spotted a male-male romantic subplot and draws it out to provide an extra dimension to the doomed characters and give the whole opera a littel unexpected spice.

PHOTOS BY KARIN COOPER FOR WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA (Top left, Renee Fleming; lower left, Vittorio Grigolo)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:23 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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