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Opera review: Mike Figgis directs 'Lucrezia Borgia' for English National Opera

February 16, 2011 |  2:00 pm

ENO LONDON -- The talk of the town here is “Anna Nicole,” British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage’s reportedly tragicomic opera about the late Playboy playmate and sex symbol. At Covent Garden, Royal Opera is coyly keeping even a plot synopsis under wraps until opening night Thursday. But for anyone in need of sex and scandal on the lyric stage, a 10-minute walk to the London Coliseum, home of the English National Opera, should serve just fine.

The city’s nimble, national and traditionally daring second company has been doing this kind of thing for years. With its provocative and riveting production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia,” for instance, filmmaker Mike Figgis sets the scene with nudity, intercourse, incest, degradation, description of gang rape -- as well as animating naughty Renaissance paintings -- in four short films that are used to give proper historical context to an otherwise fictional 19th century Italian opera.

What is attracting attention (and causing mild controversy) with Figgis’ new production, however, is his inclusion of these four films.

On screen, he introduces beautiful actors and actresses, sumptuously shot in stunning historical settings, portraying the legendarily wicked Lucrezia, her psychopathic brother Cesare (who is not in the opera) and their father Pope Alexander VI (also not in the opera) in all their enticing decadence. The soundtrack includes interesting electronic mixes of Donizetti’s score.

Meanwhile on stage, opera singers in period costumes sing bel canto opera pretty much the old-fashioned way although with effective theatricality. Sets are minimal and traditional. Lighting is stark.

Figgis’ “Lucrezia Borgia” is part of English National Opera’s effort to bring film makers into the opera house for the first time, following the success of Anthony Minghella’s“Madama Butterfly” in 2005. Next up is Terry Gilliam’s “Damnation of Faust,” opening May 6.

Opera manners and film manners clash: English National Opera typically performs its operas in English, so Donizetti’s Italian libretto is sung in translation. Figgis furthers the topsy-turvy situation by shooting the films in Italian with subtitles. And at Wednesday’s performance, a spot light was assigned to a sign-language interpreter standing stage right.

There’s still more cubism to come. The Feb. 23 performance will have a live relay in 3-D in British movie theaters (with a later showing planned but not scheduled yet in the U.S.). Presumably the film will remain in 2-D with the glasses being needed for live action. And even that’s not all. When Figgis directs the simulcast, he will bring down the theatrical fourth wall with backstage action seen only in movie theaters. A making-of documentary also is in the works.

One, of course, should expect no less from Figgis’ first foray into opera.  He used four simultaneous screens in the 2000 film “Time Code,” which he has mixed live at screenings. He is an accomplished chronicler of disgrace (“Leaving Las Vegas”). He can, when necessary, satisfy Hollywood with conventional narrative (“Cold Creek Manor”). He is his own composer in his films (including “One Night Stand” and “Internal Affairs”).

All of this makes Figgis ideal for a sweeping approach to Donizetti. “Dark characters have always fascinated me,” he says in a director's note.

In this opera, Lucrezia secretly espies her long-lost illegitimate son Gennaro, a soldier of fortune. But she falls victim to her husband Alfonso’s intrigue (he suspects Gennaro of being her lover) and her own. While blithely poisoning some of Gennaro’s companions for their anti-Borgia sentiments, she inadvertently includes Gennaro.

Lucrezia’s duality here is the typically hackneyed one between brutality and the kind of maternal love for which Italian opera is especially forgiving. Joan Sutherland could become the most renowned Lucrezia simply by mouthing meaningless vowels and rewarding soaring melodic lines with stunning, if affectless, tones.

Figgis trusts the music differently and tellingly. Since his films serve to provide context, he doesn’t need to do anything fancy with the staging, which is intimate and intense. All the focus is on the singers and their interaction, and the cast is terrific.

Claire Rutter is a forceful yet unfussy Lucrezia -– everyone is ultimately a victim of her iron will (and iron-melting soprano). That includes Alfonso, Gennaro and, movingly, herself. Tenor Michael Fabiano is a passionate, affecting Gennaro, with that self-destructive Borgia iron will.

His friend, Orsini, a Roman nobleman, is a pants role for a mezzo-soprano. Elizabeth DeShong wears pants but also a skirt and adds a believable new romantic dimension to a plot that can use one. She has a spellbindingly thick, rich sound. Alastair Miles’ hateful Alfonso toys with those in his power to compensate for Lucrezia’s command over him.

Paul Daniels, the company’s former music director, conducts with grace and point. Chorus, orchestra and sexy supernumeraries all understand that to cohabit with film, opera must be drama.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Michael Fabiano as Gennaro in Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia" at English National Opera. Credit: Steven Cumminsky / English National Opera.

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