Lucrezia Borgia

Helen Wallace takes a trip to English National Opera where Donizetti meets the silver screen

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This was Mike Figgis’s first foray into opera, but the director wasn’t about to deny his cinematic credentials.

The production opens with a filmed tableau introducing the Borgia family. Figgis replaces the overture with a sound track of his own, a contained roar, like blood pulsating through the body, from out of which emerged a few ghostly arpeggios that once belonged to Donizetti.

It’s psychologically apt: we see the young Lucrezia caught between her abusive father, Pope Alexander the Sixth and her brother Cesare, the two men who scarred and shaped the notorious murderess. We hear first-hand of the family’s debauchery and sadism from household whores.

Cut to the stage, and soprano Claire Rutter’s touching portrayal of a regretful, middle-aged Lucrezia: ‘If only I could go back.’ Donizetti’s rumpty-tumpty style, and the gentle formality of the stage produces an almost comic jolt, not helped by the sudden change from spoken Italian to sung English. (Paul Daniel’s libretto is a dissonance too far – how many inane rhymes can you make with the word Borgia?)

After that first sharp gear change, it’s hard to think the interleaving films will present any kind of synthesis, but that would be to underestimate the power and beauty of the stage production. Figgis’s starting point is early Renaissance Italian art, and its framing.

The painterly feel of the films, with their chiaroscuro effects in a Renaissance Roman mansion, is matched by Es Devlin’s gilded, tableau-like staging, lit with extraordinary subtlety and radiance by Peter Mumford against a well of seemingly infinite darkness.

Figgis the filmmaker knows all about close-ups, cropping, compression and framing: a giant, jewel-encrusted altarpiece opens to reveal Lucrezia and her husband Antonio d’Este (a sonorous Alastair Miles); her estranged son Gennaro (the promising American tenor Michael Fabiano) and his ally Orsini (sumptuous mezzo Elizabeth DeShong) appear under a tiny proscenium arch.

In Act II Gennaro and his friends are presented as guests at Leonardo’s Last Supper. The blasphemous reference, again, is far from gratuitous: this was a corrupt dynasty led by its own Pope. The last of the interleaved films comprised simply of mesmerising, slow-motion recreations of paintings, including Bronzino’s Allegory of Lust.

Back to the stage and the two worlds have come together. Some critics have claimed that Figgis blew the budget on the films and ‘forgot’ about the stage direction. That is to misunderstand his intention: Figgis, the musician, wisely gave primacy to the singers. He preserved the formality of a 19th-century opera and allowed the singers to shine in a production of striking poise. (I would have favoured more budget on the film: a Primark label showed in a shirt, a modern upright piano howled from the corner of a Renaissance room.)

Those critics (and those audience members who booed Figgis on the first night) should also wait to see the 3D broadcast on Sky Arts: my guess is that his vision will achieve its greatest synthesis on screen. And if he can bring opera to life in that notoriously difficult medium, he has a promising new career ahead of him.

Lucrezia Borgia is currently on at English National Opera. It will be broadcast on 23 February live on Sky Arts 2HD and Sky 3D, and Mike Figgis will direct a behind-the-scenes film for Sky Arts 1 HD. The production will also be relayed to select cinemas around the UK.

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine