San Francisco Opera | Secrets & Masks Bel Canto as Drama in Lucrezia Borgia

Secrets & Masks Bel Canto as Drama in Lucrezia Borgia

The premiere of Lucrezia Borgia on December 26, 1833 came at a crucial period in the thirty-six-year-old Gaetano Donizetti’s career. Although he had already accumulated substantial experience writing for the stage—by this point his complete list of operas, including incomplete and unperformed scores, tallied more than forty—the composer was riding the crest of fame that had really begun with the success of his “lyrical tragedy” Anna Bolena three years earlier. The appearance of Lucia di Lammermoor in 1835, just a few days after rival Vincenzo Bellini’s early death, would accelerate Donizetti’s growing reputation as the dominant figure of Italian opera until he succumbed to the ravages of syphilis in 1843, after which he was reduced to a state of insanity for the five years of life that remained to him. As he faded from the scene, a young composer named Giuseppe Verdi began to emerge as the harbinger of a new operatic era.

Donizetti earned admiration and envy alike for his ability to maintain a prolific output that was regarded as extraordinary even in the context of a business that demanded speedy working habits. A vivid caricature exists from around the time he had begun to conquer the operatic capital of Paris in the early 1840s, overseeing productions of his work there in multiple venues. It shows the composer using both hands to create two separate operas simultaneously. Deadlines tended to be notoriously tight (certainly the case with Lucrezia Borgia), while the clout of star singers often led to the need to patch in last-minute requests to satisfy their egos. As an indication of the power of star performers, the fee commanded by the prima donna originally cast as Lucrezia was nearly ten times that of the composer.

Despite such intense pressures, which he faced throughout his career, Donizetti was by no means satisfied with churning out predictable material. Success had been hard won, but as he began finally to taste it, the composer remained intent on posing new challenges for himself that addressed both the musical and the dramatic dimensions of the genre, seeking a tighter integration of the two. The late William Ashbrook, the long-reigning American authority on the composer, writes that the year 1833, which produced Lucrezia Borgia as well three other operas, “marked a new level of more consistent achievement for Donizetti. While these operas are not without unevenness, they show his increasing ability to sustain dramatic expressiveness beyond the compass of single numbers.” Ashbrook finds in Lucrezia Borgia in particular “the clear emergence of a manner that can be labeled distinctively Donizettian for all his retention of structures that were by now traditional.”

Thanks in part to Wagnerian propaganda but also to later developments of Italian opera spearheaded by Verdi and the verismo composers, an ingrained misperception persists that bel canto style must confine its focus to vocal pyrotechnics and limpid melody—to the detriment of genuine dramatic sense. But the clich. Of bel canto as an exhibitionist art merely intended to delight “canary fanciers” ignores the integral role assigned to the music as a vehicle to intensify the emotional significance of the dramatic moment onstage. “The dramatic vision in Lucrezia Borgia,” Ashbrook aptly remarks, “rarely dims.” Based on material that underlines the composer’s “appetite for strong situations,” he adds, the opera inspired Donizetti to treat each of these moments by imagining “a musical frisson that effectively heightens the dramatic effect.”

The subject matter indeed elicited considerable enthusiasm from Donizetti, though he was well aware of the headaches it would cause in getting through the tightly authoritarian censorship system to which new operas were subjected in the decades before Italy’s unification. Following a roller coaster of successes and failures at Milan’s rival companies, in October 1833 Donizetti was offered a contract by La Scala’s director, Duke Carlo Visconti di Modrone. (The Duke hailed from the wealthy Milanese family that later produced film director Luchino Visconti.) The contract called for two new operas, with the first to open the upcoming Carnival season—a slot filled somewhat ironically by Lucrezia Borgia, given its macabre take on the theme of partying.

None other than Felice Romani, the finest operatic poet of the era, was assigned as librettist. Romani had written for Rossini and Bellini and had previously worked with Donizetti as well on Anna Bolena, L’Elisir d’Amore, and several other operas. Their collaboration on Lucrezia, however, was riddled with tension. Donizetti proved increasingly keen on exercising control over his subject matter, and Romani found the censorship issue particularly vexing. A story centered around a historical character who was the illegitimate daughter of a pope and who embodied the popular conception of a murderous femme fatale would, after all, manage only to stoke the flames. And on top of all that, a prominent family in Milan thought to be descended from the Borgias made the need for diplomacy and compromise even more essential. “I could not treat this subject better,” fumed the librettist, “nor proceed more carefully on account of the censorship.”

Of course the historical Lucrezia Borgia herself had long since been regarded as the epitome of controversial subject matter across the arts. Her image was rife with implications of incest, illicit desire, and fear of female power but had recently begun to be reclaimed by such voices of the romantic revolution as Victor Hugo. His fictional treatment of her in his five-act play Lucrèce Borgia caused a great stir when it opened in February 1833 in Paris and supplied the direct source from which the opera was adapted. Donizetti and Romani were forced to tone down some of the play’s more over-the-top elements, including the climactic scene, in which Gennaro actually succeeds in stabbing his mother before dying from the wine she has poisoned. (In the opera she is left to “faint lifeless” over her son’s corpse.)

Hugo and Donizetti belong to an ongoing, highly varied list of artists who have invested Lucrezia Borgia with a mythic resonance, and this fascination shows no signs of waning. In popular culture, her fictive persona ranges from appearances in norman Corwin’s famous radio play of 1938, The Plot to Overthrow Christmas (where she teams up with baddies like Ivan the Terrible and an assortment of nasty roman emperors), to contemporary manga and the latest season of the priapic Showtime series, The Borgias.

Despite all the exaggerations of legend and folklore, the actual Lucrezia, one of several illegitimate children the future Pope Alexander VI sired with Vannozza dei Cattanei, one of his mistresses, is no less intriguing. Lucrezia lived during a period of historical crossroads: born during the renaissance in 1480, she died in childbirth in 1519, two years after martin Luther launched the reformation with his 95 Theses. In 1492 her father, rodrigo Borgia, who came from a family of Valencian ancestry considered outsiders by the romans, was elected pope. His choice of the name Alexander points to the renaissance vogue for classical precedents, which is also apparent in the names he selected for two of his children, Cesare and Lucrezia. (The latter, referring to the ancient roman icon of wifely virtue, was actually used with snickering irony by the family’s many enemies—not unlike Gennaro’s wordplay in the opera between “Borgia” and “orgia.”)

“She was a woman of her time,” writes biographer Sarah Bradford, “well educated in humanist literature, speaking Italian, Catalan, French, and Latin and capable of writing poetry in those languages; she also had understanding of greek. She had been taught eloquence and could express herself elegantly in public speech. She loved music and poetry… and learned to dance with skill and grace.” And though she belonged to “a world in which male dominance was taken for granted” and was forced by her family in and out of marriages for political advantage, eventually “she ruled over a magnificent court with herself as the focus of a circle of poets and intellectuals.”

But Lucrezia Borgia also suffered a certain guilt by association with the nefarious doings of her extended family, including her ruthless brother, Cesare, whose tactics come up for discussion in Machiavelli’s The Prince. In her own lifetime she began to acquire mythic status as an archetypal femme fatale. What proves so striking in Hugo’s fictional reimagining is the resonance he attributes to Lucrezia as a sort of female Byronic hero beset by intense contradictions: the gently maternal affection of her opening scene frames the entire opera and is tragically juxtaposed with her image as a vengeful ogress. (For his part, Lord Byron actually confessed to stealing a strand of Lucrezia’s golden hair kept with a stash of her love letters which he had sought out in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.)

Clearly what attracted Donizetti so magnetically to this material—despite having to blunt some of its edge—was the sense of musical and dramatic possibilities he sensed could be generated by these contradictions. In each act, a different aspect of Lucrezia comes to the fore. She longs to connect to her past and the impossibly lost innocence Gennaro represents in the Prologue; her relationship with don Alfonso in Act I shows the world of power politics in which she operates, while her penchant for exacting cruel vengeance propels the doom-laden finale. Gennaro’s defacement of the Borgia crest serves as a neat metaphor for the versatile associations of which this anti-heroine is capable. Yet holding all of her contradictory motivations together is the sheer force of her personality. Small wonder that the role’s challenges have proved especially attractive to generations of charismatic sopranos. In the decades since the bel canto revival, they have included such divas as Montserrat Caball, Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Edita Gruberova, and, of course, Renée Fleming. (Curiously, despite seeming so tailor-made for her, Maria Callas never performed the entire role.)

The role’s challenges go beyond the ones typically associated with a bel canto showpiece and demand dramatic involvement and presence. In fact, Donizetti was dead-set against providing a coloratura cabaletta as Lucrezia mourns over her dead son, insisting on its dramatic inappropriateness. But he had to give in to the demand of Henriette Meric-Lalande, the French-born singer who created the role, for this more conventional finale. Later, when Donizetti revamped the score for a production in 1840, he revised the finale by omitting the cabaletta “era desso il figlio mio” and providing a new aria for the dying Gennaro.

Still, the standard compromise in contemporary productions—as in the one we are seeing—is to combine both the old and new finales. In dramatic terms, the rapid sequence of emotions here neatly reprises the essential conflict of the opera as one between Gennaro’s naive, almost folklike directness and the artfulness of his mother—between innocence and experience. A sensitive performer and director can transform the florid outbursts with which Lucrezia caps her mournful passion into a combination of bel canto mad scene and Liebestod. (The aching melody of Gennaro’s cantilena, incidentally, seems to prefigure one of the more haunting motifs from the love scene of the end of Act I of Die Walküre.)

The contradictions of the central character infuse the opera as a whole, beginning with the contrast of the gloomy prelude set against the intentionally superficial-sounding festive music of Gennaro and his comrades in the Venetian Prologue. With wonderful symmetry, Donizetti here foreshadows the opera’s tragic course, when this pattern is reversed in the last act, from careless joy to fatal dread. Orsini’s Brindisi is the best-known excerpt from the score, but how much more effective is the jaunty tune of this drinking song in its full context, juxtaposed against the gothic tolling of bells and requiem chanting. It perfectly establishes the Edgar Allan Poe-like horror of the concluding scene, which brings the terrifying vision Orsini had recounted in his opening ballad chillingly before us and equates Lucrezia with death itself.

Although Alfonso’s unfounded jealousy seems to want to reshape the story into the familiar form of a love triangle, Lucrezia Borgia prodded Donizetti to make a number of remarkable innovations. The most obvious of these is the displacement of a conventional love story by hints of “illicit” love—both in the fervor of Gennaro’s feelings for the masked woman to whom he is so instinctively drawn (with the resulting hint of incestuous passion) and in the homoerotic implications of the attachment that fatally binds him, against his better judgment, to his friend Orsini, which are underlined in director John Pascoe’s interpretation of the opera.

In formal terms as well, Donizetti plays with the conventions: much as he refocuses the lengthy love duet between mother and son to encompass Gennaro’s solo (and, again, folklike) account of his background, the thrilling trio ending the first act narrows according to the dramatic momentum into a duet. Similarly, Donizetti etches his secondary characters—the spies in particular—with great economy to establish the violence-prone nature of the milieu in which the opera unfolds. The entire effect is to enhance the atmosphere of disguised appearances, uncertain identities, intrigue, and nocturnal ambiguity that underlies Lucrezia Borgia. Ambiguity indeed is the heart of the matter here, where secrets are revealed too late and masks untimely removed.

The passion of Donizetti’s music, meanwhile, suggests that something deeper than unfortunate coincidence is at play. What seems stagey melodrama on the surface is rooted in the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that define Lucrezia’s tragic hold over Gennaro and his comrades. Her ultimate victimization, Donizetti seems to suggest, lies in Lucrezia’s compulsion to play the role in which she has been cast—the curse of the Borgias—and from which she had hoped to spare her son.

One member of Lucrezia’s first audiences, the young giuseppe Verdi—then a student in milan—must have been deeply impressed indeed. For a pivotal opera of his own, Verdi would later turn to the play Hugo had written the year before Lucrèce Borgia: Le Roi S’Amuse, which became the basis for Rigoletto. Hugo described the thread shared by both plays, written as an intentionally complementary pair, in terms of parent-child relationships. While the latter shows “paternity sanctifying physical deformity,” in the playwright’s phrase, the former represents “maternity purifying moral deformity.”

Donizetti scholar Herbert Weinstock sees nothing less here than a capsule summary of the evolution of Italian opera in the first half of the nineteenth century: “Certainly the shift in the texture of Italian opera from the classical romanticism of rossini’s opera seria and all of Bellini to the controlled blood-and-thunder of Verdi nowhere is prefigured better than in the strongest scenes of Anna Bolena and Lucrezia Borgia.”

Profile: Gaetano Maria Donizetti