KILLER LUCREZIA - WASHINGTON OPERA - 15 November 2008
Sam Shirakawa attended Washington Opera's production of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. Here is his squib:
The evening did not begin promisingly. The announcer alerting the not-quite sold-out audience to a last-minute substitution made you all too aware that you were in the operatic hinterlands: a certain "Raimondi Ruggero" (Who?) would be replaced by John Marcus Bindel at that performance of the Washington Opera's production of Lucrezia Borgia.
Darkened house lights only led to a rockier start -- rhythmic disconnects between the chorus and orchestra. Placido Domingo was on the podium, but his baton was doing its job, so don't blame him.
Once the performance got going though, I found myself in a time warp. I can't recall the last time I heard so much wonderful singing at a live opera performance; the Good Old Days of Opera are not gone. Well, not entirely gone.
Donizetti's opera is hard to mount in any age, because its musical hassles (and they are monumental) are too daunting even for singers possessing the requisite technique and that elusive X-factor: stylistic aptitude. Especially in the title role.
The WNO staged a major coup by engaging a world-famous diva and an emerging star to alternate as Lucrezia. I took no interest in Renee Fleming's debut with the company because I don't think she is right for Lucrezia; she proved a dud in the part at La Scala about ten years ago, and the initial reviews in DC indicated that little has changed. Her lesser known alternate also seemed primed for a fall: Sondra Radvanovsky is cementing her status as the leading Verdi soprano of her time, she has succeeded in rarefied areas of Verismo and has essayed a gemütliche Gutrune. Many are the sopranos who have made a career on far less. But if you're asking for trouble, why not go for the truly toxic?
Radvanovsky was clearly eager to drink from Lucrezia's deadly ring, but she must also have sagely tossed back a can of Red Bull as an antidotal chaser. Those in the audience who know the opera via Caballe most likely found that Radvanovsky is her own girl in the eponymous role. All the spine-tingling trills, frills and roulades are there along with the laser-beam high Bs and above. But she also brings an urgency and energy to the part that you often craved from Caballe but happily forewent in the thrall of that ravishing sound. Radvanovsky's triumph in the role was sealed when she managed to overcome the distraction of a hideous Barbarella-cum-Space Lounge waitress costume during her protracted appearance in the final act. (Are they incipient thunder thighs I spy beneath that trashy tutu?)
What Radvanovsky still lacks, though, is enchantment -- that diva aura. She has all the makings, but she needs a make-over to put it all together properly with maybe her own line of I'm-no-ordinary-working-girl accessories.
She might also take a cue from her tenor Vittorio Grigolo -- a phenomenon by any standard -- who sings Gennaro. If you know him only from the internet, it's easy to dismiss Grigolo as a glamah-boy pesante who's a wanna-be something-or-other. But get past the legions of gah-gah Cyberspace fans, the androgynous Latin Lothario looks, the washboard abs, those mostly awful crossover numbers -- and surf over to his serious stuff. You'll find that Grigolo is not only a macho Golden Boy at the age of 31, but also has a golden voice. It's bronze in the lower register, mellow in the middle, and just plain thrilling at the top. The numerous entries on YouTube don't do him justice. If you care about vocal art, take every measure to hear him live, and soon. His is the kind of instrument that can develop gradually into greater heights and depths or disappear overnight. Among the legions of tenors I have heard come and go, only three had Grigolo's miraculous raw material: Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano and the tragic Frederic Kalt. But Grigolo has something that eluded them all: superior musical intelligence. While his acting is rudimentary, to say the least, his slash-and-thrust gestures are somehow mesmerizing -- much in the same way that (dare I say it?) Callas made her spontaneous arm movements work for her.
The blaze trailed by the two leads nearly obscured the notable contributions left by other members of the uniformly redoubtable cast.
First among equals, Kate Aldrich brought verve to the fireworks that Donizetti sets off in Orsini's set numbers and proved herself an agile athlete, jumping off platforms in elevated heels. (Watch the video on the WNO website -- ouch!) John Marcus Bindel was vocally secure and unusually sympathetic, standing in for the indisposed Ruggero Raimondi. (By the way, no signs were posted nor were inserts placed in the programs to advise the audience of the cast revision. Is that a cutback in these parlous times? -- or the WNO's way of circumventing demands for refunds?) Exceptional among the comprimarios: Yingxi Zhang as Rustighello, Jesus Hernandez, and Grigory Soloviov.
Critics have been generally soft on Placido Domingo's talents as a conductor, primarily, I think, because he doesn't disgrace himself. As his vocal career winds down, he might do well to work as hard on honing his vision as a conductor as he has on transforming his voice into a force to be reckoned with.
John Pascoe's production was for the most part eye-pleasing and occasionally thought-provoking. You may know that the convoluted plot (based on a play by Victor Hugo) about the infamous Borgia family involves jealousy and homicide in an unusual triangle -- Lucrezia's maternal love for her long-lost son Gennaro (and his unwitting passion for her), as well as Gennaro's ardent friendship with the warrior Orsini (a trouser role in the opera). Pascoe takes the libretto's sexual aspects to another level by making it clear that Orsini can make Gennaro's trousers really fill out. It's a touch that's surely touched a chord in F Major among DC's vast army of Spartan operagoers. Lest the point be overlooked, Pascoe had Grigolo play his death scene stripped to the waist and take his curtain calls shirtless.
Only one performance left to hear those abs pumping live! 17 November @ 7p, Kennedy Center, Washington DC.
© Sam H. Shirakawa