San Francisco Opera | Director’s Note: Lucrezia Borgia – A Story of Love and the Misogyny of History

Director’s Note: Lucrezia Borgia – A Story of Love and the Misogyny of History

To understand the emotions behind the dramatic story line of Lucrezia Borgia, I feel that it is vital to bear in mind the social and historical background of the characters. Despite the fact that Lucrezia Borgia has been known primarily as a beautiful poisoner, there is an excellent case for viewing her as more victim than villain. Donizetti’s romantic score aids us in this attitude, as does a review of the mythology of her life. These indicate that Lucrezia may have been sexually abused by both of her brothers—Cesare and Giovanni—and also by her father, the future Pope Alexander VI. As family backgrounds go, it is hard to imagine a more horrifying one.

However, when viewing the roles that these males played in both her life and the world in which they all functioned, Machiavelli’s famous (and frequently misquoted) line, “The end justifies the means,” comes appropriately to mind. Machiavelli’s nearly 500-year-old treatise on male power-play The Prince was a virtual celebration of the exploits of Lucrezia’s brother, the power mad Cesare Borgia. He not only rampaged around what we now know as Italy—attacking castles at will and taking all he wished—but also reputedly killed Lucrezia’s second husband as well as his own brother Giovanni.

The fratricide appears to have been the direct result of Cesare’s discovery of the reputed affair between his brother and their sister. If a child was produced by this union it would certainly have been hidden by Lucrezia in order to protect its life from the jealous Cesare. So there seems to be every reason to accept the premise that the son referred to in Donizetti’s opera as Gennaro is in fact the product of the incestuous union with her murdered brother, Giovanni Borgia.

To state the obvious, the fact that history has traditionally been written by men has given us a distorted view of the past. Men are viewed as being heroes for killing and women are described as villainesses when they dare to fight back. Fortunately for us, Donizetti does not agree with this view of womankind: his music for Lucrezia is full of power, passionately expressed love, and the purest beauty.

The story of the opera commences some twenty years after the birth of the mysterious child, and it spins around the tangled rapport that Lucrezia has with her brutal husband Alfonso d’Este, her now adult son Gennaro (who has been raised in ignorance of both his and her identity), as well as with Gennaro’s friend Maffio Orsini.

The relationship between Gennaro and his lover Maffio (for whom Gennaro ultimately sacrifices his own life) arguably provides the only purely loving element of the story. The fact that this relationship is between two male warriors, in my view, gives the opera an added modern kick.

All of this melodrama might appear to have all the makings of the most lurid plot of a television series, yet none of the characters seem cardboard and the plot’s twists seem anything but artificial; courtesy of the stunning flow of passionately melodic modulations from Donizetti. For me it is his music that transforms a story of blood and violent passions—where revenge and murder become the wages of love—into a transfiguring drama.

I am deeply honored to be presenting my production of Lucrezia Borgia in San Francisco, the magnificent house where I made my international debut as a set designer so many years ago with Handel’s Giulio Cesare. But it should be said that to endeavor to create a production of this seminal work without a great bel canto conductor at the helm and a true prima donna at its center would be a task doomed to failure. Maestro Frizza and I have been aiming to work together for years, and I am deeply excited to do so on this project. At its center singing the role of Lucrezia is the glorious Renée Fleming, who has, for the many years of this project’s gestation, been the prime and blazing inspiration for its very creation.

I am also grateful to David Gockley, who has been involved with the project from the beginning, for inviting me to present Lucrezia Borgia here in San Francisco. May I venture to trust that aided by Donizetti’s stunningly dramatic music, the complex world surrounding the beautiful Lucrezia, her son Gennaro, and his doomed relationship with his warrior lover Maffio Orsini, will once again live and perhaps even have the power to make us shed a tear for hopeless love?

Note: This essay was published in a 2011 edition of San Francisco Opera Magazine.

Profile: Gaetano Maria Donizetti
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