Sunday 5 March 2023

Style and youthful charm: English Touring Opera brings out the musical delights of Donizetti's murderous heroine, Lucrezia Borgia

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia - Paula Sides - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia - Paula Sides - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia; Paula Sides, Thomas Elwin, Aidan Edwards, Katie Coventry, directed: Eloise Lally, conducted Gerry Cornelius, the Old Street Band; English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire

A welcome outing for Donizetti's rarely staged Lucrezia as ETO brings out the work's musical riches in an engaging performance from a largely youthful cast including a period instrument band

With the exception of his comedies and a bare handful of more serious operas, Donizetti's operas are only rarely seen in the opera house, so it was welcome indeed that English Touring Opera's second production of their 2023 Spring Season was Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. Last seen in London in 2011 at ENO (in Mike Figgis' production with Claire Rutter), the work's previous major outing in the capital was at Covent Garden in 1980 with Joan Sutherland.

On Friday 3 March 2023, English Touring Opera (ETO) performed Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia at the Hackney Empire. Directed by Eloise Lally, the performance featured Paula Sides as Lucrezia, Thomas Elwin as Gennaro, Aidan Edwards as Alfonso and Katie Coventry as Orsini, plus Jerome Knox, Brenton Spiteri, Monwabisi Lindi, Peter Edge, Phil Wilcox, Matthew McKinney, Edward Jowle, Aaron O'HareMasimba Ushe and Ben Knight. Designs were by Adam Wiltshire within the gold box frame designed by Cordelia Chisholm for Giulio Cesare, lighting was by Ric Mountjoy. Gerry Cornelius conducted the Old Street Band, ETO's period instrument ensemble.

Donizetti wrote Lucrezia Borgia in 1833 for La Scala, Milan, three years after his breakout success with Anna Bolena and a year before Maria Stuarda. Lucrezia Borgia returns to the same literary version of history, this time based on a play by Victor Hugo. It is a strange piece. With most operas of the period, you can summarise what the opera is really about, the emotional nub. With Lucrezia it is tricky, the plot is almost inconsequential and is really only the unfortunate confluence of public and private in the life of its murderous heroine. Often, Donizetti's music fails to convince of these murderous intentions, yet is unfailingly wonderful. I came out of the theatre charmed and delighted, without being put through any sort of emotional wringer.

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia - Thomas Elwin, Katie Coventry & the ragazzi - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia - Thomas Elwin, Katie Coventry & the ragazzi - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

It is quite a chamber piece, there is no chorus and though there are eleven named roles (plus the three brigands), we have few big ensemble scenes, instead, there are a series of smaller ones and a number of the lesser roles, notably Matthew McKinney's Rustighello, have quite significant moments. The strangeness continues with the layout of the drama. The hero, Gennaro (Thomas Elwin) had two duets with Lucrezia (Paula Sides), the first being almost a love duet despite the fact that she is his mother (a fact not revealed till the very end), then in Act Two he had a duet with his best friend, Orsini (a trousers role, played by Katie Coventry), which got into serious bromance territory, and in this production a little beyond. So, we have incest with a side-order of homosexuality, all in the 16th century, so that was OK, wasn't it?

Eloise Lally's production was very traditional, she did not try to do anything too psycho-analytic to it. There were hints of a different production, the way Liverotto (Brenton Spiteri) was flirting with Gubetta (Edward Jowle) in Act One, and the aforementioned duet between Orsini and Gennaro that almost ended in a clinch. But then the whole piece has a very homosocial feel, after all, there is actually only one female character in the piece. Adam Wiltshire's costumes were a sort of modern dressing-up-box version of the 16th century with rather a fondness of leather trousers and an avoidance of men in real hose.

But Lally had a tendency to arrange singers in an attitude and then let them get on with it. She brought a welcome element of dynamic drama to the recitative, but set pieces could be rather static. Part of this was understandable, after all the music in the opera is complex and was being sung by a largely young cast, many new to their roles. And frankly, I rather enjoyed it. The production did not tap any deep psychological wells and indeed, does the opera have any? It was gorgeous to look at, and Wiltshire had been very imaginative with the use of his budget, told the story adequately and provided a good frame for some fine singing.

This wasn't, quite, Donizetti singing for the ages, but there was much to enjoy. Yes, there were occasional flurries of smudged passagework, but overall this was a performance with style and pace and the principals all managed to pull the requisite dazzle out of a hat. It will bed down during the run; with shows like this, you feel critics should be invited to a performance mid-run, when everyone has settled in.

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia - Paula Sides, Aidan Edwards - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia - Paula Sides, Aidan Edwards - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Paula Sides made a remarkably demure Lucrezia, but then Donizetti never quite gives her a moment of real fury, the music is a long way from that given by Verdi to Lady Macbeth (Macbeth debuted just 14 years after Lucrezia). We never really worked out why she was murderous, the opera simply takes it as a fact. But Sides had a lovely edge to her voice, a firmness at its core which gave that element of steel, she was more lyrico-spinto than coloratura, something emphasised by the fact that we did not end with Lucrezia's dazzling cabaletta, which Donizetti added for a demanding diva but later withdrew. Sides was great at moving between the role's different emotional sides, by turns erotic, furious, pleading and loving. And she made the role's more technical aspects part of the whole, rather than it being a coloratura showpiece. Then, at the end, the lovely duet with her dying son, was profoundly moving.

Thomas Elwin, as Gennaro, was making not only his role debut but moving further into Italian bel canto, having previously sung in Donizetti's comedies, plus Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Weill. It was a fine debut, he has a robust lyric voice and brought a great sense of firm line to Donizetti's music, along with a sense of style. A couple of high notes apart, this was a beautifully sung account of the role, despite the character's idiocies. Gennaro is a remarkably passive character, one in the long line of idiot 19th-century operatic heroes, and frankly, neither Elwin nor Lally gave us anything more. But Elwin and Sides made the closing scene extremely moving, so it was a shame that the opera did not offer many other opportunities for emotional depth from Elwin. As it was he swaggered admirably and certainly made the most of the clinch with his 'friend' Orsini (Katie Coventry).

Katie Coventry made an engaging Orsini, swaggering with the best of them and looking appealingly boyish. Coventry has quite a lithe voice (she has sung Handel roles such as Sesto in Giulio Cesare, and is indeed covering the role on this tour), which brought a nice flexibility to the music. Perhaps, occasionally, she could have done with a little more power but there was so much to delight. Certainly, the character is a bit one-dimensional, but Coventry lit up the stage.

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia - Katie Coventry - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia - Katie Coventry - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

We caught Aidan Edwards back in 2018 when he sang Germont in the Opera Holland Park Young Artists performance of Verdi's La traviata (see my review) and his feeling for 19th-century bel canto seems to have developed even further. His performance as Alfonso was one of those that had you regretting that at this period, baritones were not given big things do to. But Edwards brought a real sense of style and luxurious quality to his singing. He was a rich voice which seemed infinitely malleable, and he made the murderous character of Alfonso alarmingly engaging and not a little sexy. Enrico in Donizetti's Anna Bolena seems a logical move.

The smaller roles were all well sung by a team of young singers who were probably relatively new to the joys of Donizetti's serious operas. Eloise Lally had clearly done fine work with them, and the scenes between the various young men had a nice theatrical drive. Top of the list must come Matthew McKinney's Rustighello, Alfonso's sidekick who seemed to take great joy in murderous deeds and McKinney brought this out with his body language, aligned to a finely lithe and characterful voice. Edward Jowle was a suitably dubious Gubetta, Lucrezia's creature who hangs around with Orsini, Gennaro and the ragazzi in order to keep an eye on them (and didn't seem to object to a bit of flirting too). Jerome Knox made an impression in his short scene as Astolfo, Lucrezia's majordomo.

The ragazzi who form a chorus around Orsini and Gennaro were Brenton Spiteri (Liverotto), Monwabisi Lindi (Vitellozzo), Peter Edge (Petrucci), Phil Wilcox (Gazella) and the four were all neatly differentiated and each contributed his own moment in the scene in the Prologue (here called Act One), where they confronted Sides' Lucrezia with her past misdeeds. Aaron O'Hare, Masimba Ushe and Ben Knight were the brigands in Alfonso's service, managing to make their rather cardboard cut-out roles into something more.

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia - Ben Knight, Matthew McKinney, Jerome Knox, Aaron O'Hare- English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia - Ben Knight, Matthew McKinney, Jerome Knox, Aaron O'Hare- English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

In the pit, Gerry Cornelius and the Old Street Band had great fun with the different range of colours that instruments of the period bring. With both wind and horns, each note takes on a different colour, and the brass was far less intrusive than can be the case with modern instruments. Occasionally, I felt Cornelius let the band have a bit too much head, given that the cast were largely younger singers new to their roles, but overall this justified the experiment. And not a one-off either, but a whopping 13 performances between now and 26 May. I thought that the orchestra took a little time to settle, to get the style right and as with the singers, dropping in on a performance mid-run, say 14 April in Cambridge, would be very illuminating. And certainly, none of the leads seemed to feel the need to push too much, the whole encouraged that chamber feel I was talking about.

This wasn't an evening of great psychological depth. Instead, we had fine singing, some great vocal pyrotechnics and some rattling good tunes, all performed with style and youthful charm.

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