Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Lucrezia Borgia (a.k.a. A story about a little boy who loved his mother) at ENO, or in which Mike Figgis's powers of resistance are sadly inadequate

In an interview with Edward Seckerson in the programme for this production, Mike Figgis asserts that he tried hard to stay away from film. I can only say that it is regrettable that he did not try harder. For this is not simply a performance of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, but also a performance of Lucrezia Borgia: The Film for the Opera, the credits for which occupy an entire page of the booklet. Indeed so often is the film mentioned in the programme that one might be forgiven for imagining that to the production team and ENO's Artistic Director this was to be a screening of a new Mike Figgis film with a bit of opera by Donizetti tacked on (I am being slightly tongue in cheek here...but only slightly).

The resultant film dramatises three episodes from Lucrezia's life prior to the start of the opera (but positioned at roughly equal points during it), while a fourth installment features actors and actresses recreating two Renaissance paintings (the reasoning behind the last was particularly obscure to me). Intelligently integrated into other media film can add power and weight to a narrative; this one does not. Rather it consistently jars. Leaving aside the bizarre juxtaposition between a film soundtrack, I think by Ennio Morricone borrowing from Donizetti (the programme note is not at all clear on this), and Donizetti's actual music and the odd contrast between the film in Italian and the opera sung in English, the fact is that the film hopelessly compromises the dramatic tension of the opera.

Beside the opulent production values of the film (the programme lists 15 extras for goodness sake) the actual stage unsurprisingly looks bare. One wishes, how one wishes that Figgis had devoted some of the misspent money to staging an orgiastic party in the final scene that might at least have tried to live up to the sung description of a “wild party”. All I can say is if that's his idea of a wild party I must lead a much more exciting life than I had hitherto realised. During the first act Figgis at least manages to position his forces reasonably convincingly, after the interval this also goes to pieces. Orsini and Gennaro sing their duet on a small stage within a stage that has suddenly appeared for no obvious reason, and Gennaro's friends walk nonchalently off the stage with black cloths over their heads despite the fact that they are supposed to be dying agonising deaths from poison. Bizarrely, and a measure of Figgis's failure, this opera filled with poisonings, beatings and murder gives off remarkably little sense of threat, a problem most clearly indicated in the ludicrous beating of Gennaro (the most unconvincing on-stage violence I have seen since the death of Nancy in the recent London revival of Oliver – can ENO not even afford a competent fight director now?).

And what of the musicians struggling with this? I wish I could say they redeem it but this isn't altogether true, although in general they make a brave stab at Donizetti's pyrotechnics. Claire Rutter as Lucrezia is not as successful as she was in Aida. She mainly gets the money notes, although these occasionally sounded a little sour to my ears, but the passagework (I'm sure this is not the correct technical term) often sounded a bit of a struggle. Michael Fabiano as Gennaro produced some finer singing overall, but again had moments when lines were snatched or faded out. Both struggled with issues of diction. For me the standout in terms of overall quality of voice was Elizabeth DeShong's Orsini who had a lovely rich tone and sounded more consistently comfortable in the part than anybody else on stage.

The ENO Chorus continue to have unacceptable weak spots, as has been the case in other productions this season. There is a general lack of precision indicated by their frequently lousy diction and by being just fractionally out with the pit. The contrast between their performance here and that of the Royal Opera Chorus in Tannhauser presents a telling indication of just how deep the gulf sometimes is now between the two houses. Indeed there were several points which musically just sounded rather under rehearsed. There were also issues with balance (at least from where I was sitting in the Balcony) with singers being drowned by the orchestra in crescendo moments. Having said that Paul Daniel produced some exciting playing, and it was just a pity that the filmic interludes drained away what tension he was generating, and the singers sometimes struggled to match it.

This issue of diction (which has been a problem all season) requires a further word. One of the reasons for singing in English in my view is to bring the narrative over with more punch because it doesn't have to be filtered through the subtitles. If the singers are incomprehensible, or don't deliver lines in a way which seems to take account of the sense of the text (as was happening too often in this performance) it is actually more damaging to dramatic power than singing in the original language. Somebody in the company should be taking everybody to task over this. They might usefully start with the chorus.

A brief word here about the translation which is frequently laughable, and not in a good way. Whatsonstage alerted me to a fact I had missed – it has been done by Paul Daniel. I'm not sure if he has any pedigree in translation and the piece may in fact be too silly to be rescuable, but if not I do wonder why ENO allowed him to try his hand at it.

Overall, this production seems to me to exemplify the fundamental problem English National Opera currently has. It is based on a gimmick which I suspect results from insecurity in confronting a new art form. For all his protestations to the contrary, it looks as though Mike Figgis found it difficult to get to grips with directing an opera and devoted a lot of time and money to a film where he knew what he was doing. The occasional experimental production by somebody new to opera would be justifiable, but John Berry keeps on doing it; indeed, his artistic direction seems mostly to amount to a) hire someone who's never directed an opera before or b) hire an Alden. The net results do not justify the continuance of the approach. Some were clearly very angry about this production, judging by the scattered boos which greeted Figgis's curtain call. This seemed an extreme reaction to me. Booing should be reserved for productions that engender a sense of blind raging fury (e.g. the Royal Opera House Tristan). For much of this production I was just bored, and if I were to boo on every occasion where that has been the case in recent memory at the Coliseum they would probably refuse to sell me another ticket. John Berry claims, in his programme note, to be broadening the appeal of the art form. Possibly he is, as I acknowledged after A Dog's Heart, bringing in newcomers to opera. But as I also said on that occasion he is giving them a very misleading idea of what opera is – perhaps centrally the intergration of music and drama to give emotional punch - something far too many of Berry's commissions have failed in. The way things are going the Royal Opera might do worse (not that their ticket sales require it) than start flyering audiences coming out of Coliseum performances with this slogan: “If you want to see opera done properly...” (compare ENO's productions of Don Giovanni, Faust, Lucrezia Borgia with Rigoletto, Il barbiere di Siviglia and Tannhauser down the road). If the season is going to continue in this vein through to July I'm not sure I can stand it. Still at least Parsifal is next up, a pre-Berry production of great merit. Is it too much to hope that Berry might watch it and learn something?

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