Teatro Comunale di Bologna 2022 Review: Lucrezia Borgia

Silvia Paoli’s Staging Provides The Perfect Platform For Olga Peretyatko To Shine

By Alan Neilson


Half way through the first act of Teatro Comunale di Bologna’s production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Bogia,” a chorus of booing and shouts of “Shame on you” rang out from sections of the audience, which was met by enthusiastic applause from other parts of the theatre.

Following the interval, some members of the audience voted with their feet and did not return. The specific cause which sparked the controversy was Duke Alfonso’s treatment of a group of women whom he had caged for his own perverted pleasure. They were dragged out, beaten, abused, and eventually hung up like animals in abattoir and shot through the head. It was graphically brutal and uncomfortable to watch.

One of the problems with “Lucrezia Borgia” is that Felice Romani’s libretto provides scant reason for Lucrezia’s behavior. Why does she decide to poison five men at a party? The idea that it is because they had insulted her during a recent trip to Venice is weak, which leaves us with the idea that she must be must mentally ill, and predisposed to mass murder for any perceived slight, which again, is not particularly convincing.

Paoli’s Strong, Yet Controversial Vision

The director Silvia Paoli, therefore, tackled the problem by providing a meaningful context for Lucrezia’s behavior by shifting the drama from the 16th century to Mussolini’s fascist era, a period which glorified the masculine and its concomitant values of virility, aggression, and physical prowess, whilst women are relegated to providing a distinctly subservient role. In such a society, pressures comes to bear on the individual who must conform or suffer marginalization, or worse. In such circumstances, the vicious opportunist, the morally weak or the vulnerable may feel the need to present themselves as an exaggerated version of the male ideal. So that when Orsini and his friends come across the hated Lucrezia Borgia, alone at night in a foreign city, they do not stop with verbal insults, but gang rape her. After all, she deserves it, why otherwise would she be alone at such an hour?

Moreover, the incident is but one of the abuses which Lucrezia has had to suffer at the hands of men. During the overture we watch as a male figure, her father, wearing a mask of a wolf make sexual advances towards her as a child. Later, the child walks across the stage, pregnant, with her future son Gennaro. The severe traumatic consequences of such an incident would inevitably stay with her for the rest of her life, a fact Paoli illustrated by having the masked figures appear whenever she is subjected to psychological stress. Her abuse has been long and severe, Lucrezia the poisoner is a product of a society which has corrupted decent human values, and leaves no avenues of redress for its victims.

The fact that Lucrezia Borgia is born into a noble powerful family, is of no protection. Actually, it exposes her to its more extreme forms. History and art are littered with examples of powerful people publicly promoting a set of values, whilst privately inverting, exaggerating or corrupting them, knowing that they will not be held to account. Whether it is the thrill, simple hypocrisy or a deeper psychological urge, it is certainly not unusual. In Paoli’s treatment of Lucrezia’s husband Don Alfonso we are witnesses to an exaggerated, violent and perverted manifestation of masculinity, in which the murder of defenseless women provides him with his sexual thrills, the cause of the audience’s negative reaction.

So it was that Paoli piled on the pressure, turning the opera from a drama about a woman who murders people with little cause into a woman who is as much a victim as she is a monster. Her poisoning of the perpetrators during Act two, therefore, becomes understandable, given that the fascist state would have sympathized with Orsini and his gang. One wonders how close to Romani and Donizetti’s own ideas she actually came. After all, it would not have been possible during their lifetimes to stage incidences of gang rape and sexual abuse, and listening to Lucrezia’s music and words they offer us a very sympathetic portrait of Lucrezia, a woman with deep very human feelings, capable of suffering for others.

The scenographer Andrea Belli created an effective single set suggestive of an abattoir. Consisting of white tiled walls, smeared in blood, with metal doors, and metal runners at the side for hanging up meat, it produced a brutal, functional environment, yet one which could be easily tweaked to depict other locations. The blood smeared walls, however, were an ever-present, indicative of the violence that was regularly metered out to women who fell short of the ideal. The scantily clad whores mingling with male revelers in this industrial killing environment in the opening scene, forewarned the audience of the coming violence which underpins and drives the drama forward. Even in Don Alfonso’s private rooms the blood on the tiles continues to act as a visual reminder of the savage reality.

There were subtle significant additions to the staging which added to the depth of the impression made. The Christmas tree situated center stage during the first scene, for example, with its symbolic references, captured the hypocrisy and sentimentality which so often finds a home in the minds of the vicious.

Valeria Donata Betella’s costumes were colorful and appropriate to the era. The uniformed fascisti successfully created a militaristic and machismo background, while the lavish costumes and colorful dresses for Lucrezia established her unambiguous upper class credentials. Other characters were also successfully costumed to define their roles.

Wider Aspects Explored

Overall, it was a presentation which came together well, and promoted Paoli’s powerful reading of an opera which could otherwise lack the convincing motivations for explaining Lucrezia’s behavior. It also opened up wider aspects, such as the possible sexual attraction between Gennaro and Orsini, which given the intensity of their relationship, and the fact that Donizetti cast the role of Orsini as a contralto, is not such a far-fetched assumption. And as homosexuality offends the masculine ideal, they are therefore, forced to deny their feelings, even to themselves, and to adorn social masks, if they wish to avoid physical abuse, even death. It was a bit disappointing, however, to see them carving their names on a tree like a couple of love sick teenagers. It smacked of sentimentality, immaturity, and a heavy-handed attempt to inform the audience of their underlying feelings for each other.

One further irritant, given the general tenor of the production, was the mocking of the fascist soldiers by having them perform a silly dance routine. Not only did it break the atmospheric spell so carefully developed, but in this context it was not funny, notwithstanding the laughter from some members of the audience. Fascists or any other thugs inflicting violence upon officially disapproved of groups, are not figures of fun, and they would certainly not knowingly ridicule themselves.

The musical director Yves Abel, not to be outdone, produced an equally compelling reading from the orchestra, eliciting a clean, detailed performance, in which the textures were clearly revealed. Their playing was full of rhythmic vitality, replete with dynamic contrast, but nothing was ever overstressed, and his sensitivity to the needs of singers was near perfect.

Peretyatko Shines As Lucrezia

In the starring role was soprano Olga Peretyatko. She created a clearly defined portrait which, in line with Paoli’s reading, was very sympathetic to Lucrezia’s situation. Although at times defiant and vengeful, it was her ability to capture her pain and suffering and above all her love and devotion for her son which stood out.

In her opening aria “Com’è bello!” in which she sees her son for the first time since he was baby, Peretyatko gave voice to Lucrezia’s joy and concerns. In a stunning rendition, she displayed her wonderful interpretative abilities and caught Lucrezia’s feelings with great sensitivity. Her phrasing was beautifully crafted, laden with emotional depth and subtle inflections, whilst her skill at maneuvering the voice was affected with such ease that there was never any sense of stress or anxiety, ensuring the beauty of her voice was never lost. At its conclusion the audience erupted with ecstatic applause, the bravas ringing out around the auditorium, with calls for an encore, a request which was denied.

In the aria “M’odi, ah m’odi, io non t’imploro” Lucrezia implores Gennaro to take the antidote for a poison she has inadvertently given to him. Peretyatko brilliantly captured her desperation and dread with a rendition weighed down heavily with her fears, in which her voice meandered gracefully, yet tortuously, taking in passages of coloratura in which you could hear her pain.

She then released the full force of her suffering on his death in the aria “Era desso il mio figlio” with a detailed presentation in which she coated her voice with an array of dark colors and emotional accents, hysterical leaps and coloratura passages. Donizetti actually went on to erase the cabaletta as he believed it was too florid for a death scene; however, Peretyatko’s performance was such that it brought out the extreme mental turmoil into which Lucrezia had been thrown.

Pop Shows His Class As A Bel Canto Interpreter

The tenor Stefan Pop has a voice made for the bel canto repertoire. It has a beautiful timbre and possesses wonderful agility, so that he is able to move fluently up and down the scale, taking in audacious leaps, and indulging in intricate vocal passages without any loss of quality, whilst maintaining a firm hold on characterization. As such, he proved to be an ideal Gennaro to Peretyatko’s Lucrezia. His opening aria “Di pescatore ignobile,” in which he relates Gennaro’s humble, yet mysterious origins, showed off his qualities to good effect, in which his ability to spin out long, melodiously rich, warm lines impressed. Likewise, his arioso “Madre, se ognur lontano,” which he sings to his mother as he lies dying, was sung with such warmth that it attuned perfectly Gennaro’s forgiving and noble nature, while towards its end his phrasing became increasingly disjointed and weak as his life ebbed away.

The bass Mirco Palazzi produced a thoroughly dislikable portrait of Duke Alfonso, whom he successfully portrayed as a sadist, without any redeeming qualities. He clearly enjoyed his time torturing women, including the mental and physical abuse he metered out to his wife. As befitting his position Palazzi sang with authority and a real swagger in his voice. His aria “Vieni, la mia vendetta” allowed him to show off the fullness and depth of his appealing bass, with a rousing, lyrical presentation in which he glories in his own plan for revenge.

The evening also included an excellent performance from mezzo-soprano Lamia Beuque in the role of Orsini, whose essaying of the role was energetic, spirited and throughly absorbing. She possesses a vibrant, well-balanced, well-supported voice which is strong across the range with a clear, appealing timbre, which she showed off beautifully in the brindisi “Il segreto per esser felici” which she sang with a carefree confidence. Exploiting the sexual ambiguity of her trouser role, she successfully suggested that her relationship with Gennaro went beyond friendship. Their second act duet “Sei tu, son io” was expertly executed, generating a sexual frisson, which in the context of the staging had to be repressed. The contrasting voices complemented each other nicely in a balanced, strong presentation.

Ensemble pieces play a central part in the opera, especially those which include Peretyatko and Pop. Both voices are strong with a distinctive sound, and both possess the ability to dominate, but they came together superbly, sparking off the quality in each other’s singing, to create an excellent presentation, accompanied by the sensitive playing of the orchestra. In the trio “Guai se ti sfugge un moto, Se ti tradisce un detto!” in which they are joined by Palazzi, they each sing with a different passion: Lucrezia raging at her husband’s cruelty, Alfonso demanding his Gennaro’s death, while Gennaro is thankful for their hospitality. Together they achieved an excellent balance, in which the textural qualities they elicited were skillfully exhibited and the fervor and intensity of their feelings deftly captured.

The supporting roles were all performed well, with notable performances from tenor Pietro Picone as Duke Alfonso’s fixer who was suitably sinister and appeared to enjoy his patron’s sadistic behavior; and from Lucrezia’s two servants Gubetta and Astolfo, played by Nicolò Donini, whose bass displayed a pleasing quality, and tenor Luca Gallo in the role Astolfo who sang with assurance.

The Maestro del Coro Gea Garatti Ansini produced a splendid performance from the Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, which sang with real vitality, and was always cognizant to its changing role which included portrayals as a group of meat cleaver wielding butchers, a troop of fascists and the ladies in the whorehouse.

Overall, this was a first rate performance, which succeeded on every level. The production was finely attuned to meet the intentions of Romani’s text and Donizetti’s music. If certain liberties were taken in the staging, then it was wholly for the good, as it revealed the dramatic power of the work. The fact that it was controversial in parts was also a testament to director’s courage and insight who was prepared to take the necessary risks in order to bring out the full impact of the work. As for the singing, one could not reasonably ask for better.


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