“Lucrezia Borgia” may not belong to the “Tudor Trilogy” of Donizetti operas, but it is still among the most challenging operas for the lead soprano in the composer’s oeuvre.
The work had its world premiere on Dec. 26, 1833 at La Scala and while it did well throughout the 19th century, it struggled to find an audience throughout the 20th century. There were, however, a great number of divas who championed the opera, most notably Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, Dame Joan Sutherland, and Edita Gruberová.
Short Plot Summary
Gennaro and his friends, including Orsini, are in jubilant celebration. They start talking about the house that they are heading into the next day, that of Don Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara his wife Lucrezia Borgia, who they have been warned of. Gennaro wanders off alone, falls asleep, and eventually runs into a masked woman on the terrace. Struck by her beauty, he professes his love and also reveals his love for the mother that he never met. The others return to him and recognize Lucrezia and accuse her of murdering their family members.
The Duke believes that Gennaro is Lucrezia’s lover and plots to murder him. Meanwhile, Gennaro, out of contempt for the Borgias, removes the initial “B,” leaving the obscene “Orgia.”
Lucrezia demands death for the perpetrator, though she doesn’t know its Gennaro. Gennaro is accused by the Duke. Gennaro admits his guilt and Lucrezia attempts to pardon it. This forces Don Alfonso to accuse Lucrezia of infidelity. She denies it and eventually, the Duke concedes, offering the young man a glass of wine, which he drinks. Once the Duke leaves, Lucrezia gives Gennaro an antidote for the poison and asks him to flee the city.
Of course, Gennaro ignores her wishes and attends a party that Lucrezia crashes. In fact, she tells them all she poisoned the wine and arranged coffins for their bodies. She is dismayed to see Gennaro there. His friends die and he attempts to kill her but stops when she reveals that she is his mother. She asks him to drink the antidote but he refuses and dies.
Famous Musical Passages
Arguably the most famous moment in the opera is its most controversial, the aria “Era desso il figlio mio,” which the composer added upon the request of soprano Henriette Méric-Lalande before she took on the aria. The composer later removed it from the opera, though it is constantly reinstated for performances.
Watch and Listen
Renée Fleming was one of the more recent champions of the opera and in this production, she stars alongside the then-up-and-coming Michael Fabiano in San Francisco.