|About this Recording
8.660257-58 - DONIZETTI, G.: Lucrezia Borgia [Opera] (Theodossiou, De Biasio, Iori, Bergamo Musica Festival Chorus and Orchestra, Severini)
Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848)
Melodramma in a Prologue and Two Acts
Lucrezia Borgia - Dimitra Theodossiou
Orchestra and Chorus of the Bergamo Musica Festival Gaetano Donizetti
There can be few figures who have come down in history with such a bad reputation as the real Lucrezia Borgia. Her name is synonymous with intrigue and poisoning and it is easy to see why her life story has appealed to writers and musicians in search of a dramatic tale. How far this reputation may be deserved is uncertain, but the closest members of her family undoubtedly made careers out of murder and treachery. She was the daughter of Rodrigo Borgia who, thanks to serious bribery and corruption, was able to get himself elected Pope, as Alexander VI, in 1492. Lucrezia was born in 1480, died in 1519 and during that time married three husbands, the last of whom, Alfonso d’Este, Prince of Ferrara, also features as a character in Victor Hugo’s play Lucrèce Borgia. Inspired by this French drama, Felice Romani prepared a libretto for the composer Gaetano Donizetti. So (perhaps regrettably) apart from its title, this grand melodramatic opera can claim little connection with the real, Renaissance, Lucrezia.
Romani was the most admired writer of Italian opera libretti during the first half of the 19th century. He was certainly much in demand and several celebrated—and some now less well known—composers of the period commissioned libretti from him. The first was for Simon Mayr, in 1813; there followed a string of over ninety more, including seven for Vincenzo Bellini. Rossini and Verdi, too, used his services and so, with equal success, did Donizetti. For, in addition to Lucrezia Borgia, Romani wrote the texts for his Anna Bolena, Gianna di Parigi, L’elisir d’amore and four other operas. Like some other composer/librettist relationships, it was not always easy as a friendship but Romani certainly produced fine results.
After Victor Hugo’s Lucrèce Borgia had its première in Paris on 2 February 1833 its potential as the basis for a new opera was clear. The play was a success from the start. After the first performance it was recorded that:
It is hardly surprising that Donizetti was keen to capitalise on such a triumph and within a year his opera was itself on the stage, at La Scala, Milan, playing to its own enthusiastic audiences.
Preparations for the first production of the opera were rushed, to say the least. A month before the first performance was scheduled Romani had only just completed his text and rehearsals began the following week, not entirely smoothly. Donizetti composed quickly but not always to his own highest standards. The temperamental leading soprano, Henriette Méric-Lalande, refused to wear the mask that has considerable significance in the second scene of the Prologue, for fear that her public would not recognise her, and she demanded an extended bravura aria in the final scene; hardly appropriate, it might be thought, for the tragedy of a woman who has just murdered her own son, albeit unintentionally. Donizetti reluctantly agreed to her request and composed such a piece with which to end the opera. Madame Méric-Lalande was anyway sadly past her vocal prime; the leading tenor, Francesco Pedrazzi, did not fully find favour either, though the baritone, Luciano Mariani, and mezzo, Marietta Brambilla, were more generously received. So the première was not quite the success that had been expected; happily for the composer and librettist, subsequent performances, which featured other singers, fared better and soon the Milanese public took Lucrezia Borgia to their hearts; it was the 31st of Donizetti’s prolific output of 55 operas, composed between 1816 and 1843 and the fourth to receive its first performance in 1833. Seven years later, when Lucrezia was revived at La Scala, Donizetti changed the ending by removing Lucrezia’s closing aria and composing instead a lovely final air for the dying Gennaro. (The production at which this recording was made followed modern practice by retaining both.) The composer also took the opportunity to improve other parts of the score that had been too hurriedly prepared for the first performance.
Unfortunately the censors were not impressed by Lucrezia Borgia. Even during early rehearsals they were at work, and banned a scene from the opera which had made a great—indeed terrifying—effect in Hugo’s play. The display of coffins on stage, ready for Lucrezia’s victims at Princess Negroni’s banquet, was thought quite improper and thus one of the great dramatic moments that Romani and Donizetti planned had to be omitted. Even after the première, the plot was considered by some to be inappropriate for the operatic stage and over two years elapsed before its next production.
In June 1839 Lucrezia Borgia was presented at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, with a cast headed by the offstage partnership of Giulia Grisi and Giovanni Mario (whose London début this was). But the opera remained stubbornly controversial and, at the time of its Paris première at the Théâtre des Italiens in 1840, Victor Hugo took out an injunction which forbade further performances under its original title. To overcome this problem, in different theatres Lucrezia Borgia was produced under a variety of new names, including Elisa da Fosco, Eustorgia da Romano and Giovanna I di Napoli. With some changes to the libretto it was deemed suitable for performance but Lucrezia herself would surely have found all this business somewhat undignified. Matters improved after the second production was mounted at La Scala in 1840 and the opera subsequently proved to be a popular vehicle for celebrated dramatic sopranos for many years. Giulia Grisi and Thérèse Tietjens were among the greatest interpreters and sang Lucrezia on either side of the Atlantic; and for both these divas it proved to be their final rôle on the operatic stage. A number of great tenors, too, have made a fine impression as Gennaro, in one of Donizetti’s great lyrical tragic parts.
Lucrezia Borgia was first staged at Covent Garden in 1847 (again with Grisi and Mario) and at the New York Met in December 1904, when the little-remembered Maria de Macchi made her American début in the title rôle. She and Enrico Caruso (as Gennaro) gave little pleasure, at least to the critic of The New York Times, whose review-heading: ‘Reason for this opera’s revival not apparent’ may account for its being withdrawn after just the one performance.
The early twentieth century was not generally a good time for revivals of Donizetti’s operas and productions were few. ‘La Borgia’ was seen in Buenos Aires in 1919, with Ester Mazzoleni and Beniamino Gigli as Gennaro; in 1933 in Florence, with Giannina Arangi-Lombardi and Gigli again; and back home at La Scala, Milan, in 1951 with Caterina Mancini and Mirto Picchi. It was not until the 1960s that Lucrezia Borgia was re-discovered by a new generation of singers and since then it has been performed extensively, fully justifying its place as one of Donizetti’s finest operas. This production, recorded at the Teatro Donizetti in Bergamo, and staged as part of the Bergamo Music Festival dedicated to the composer’s works, shows convincingly how well it holds the stage. With a young cast and dynamic conductor, Lucrezia Borgia will continue to maintain her hold on an opera public eager to hear fine singing in the best Italian tradition.
The action takes place in Venice and Ferrara during the early 16th century.
Scene 1: The Grimani Palace in Venice.
 The young soldier Gennaro and his companions have been celebrating in the palace, whose terrace overlooks the Giudecca Canal. They will be travelling next day to Ferrara, home of the Duke Alfonso d’Este and his wife Lucrezia, a woman who each of the companions has a special reason to fear. One among them—Gubetta—is not the friendly fellow he seems, but is a secret agent of Lucrezia.
 Maffio Orsini, Gennaro’s true friend, tells of a strange meeting with an old man in a forest, who warned them to beware of Lucrezia and her family. Gennaro tires of the story, falls asleep and so does not accompany his companions…
 …as they leave to rejoin the party.
 A gondola draws up beside the terrace and a masked woman steps out; it is Lucrezia. Gubetta warns her that she may be in danger of insult if her identity is revealed.
 Lucrezia espies the sleeping Gennaro and is attracted to the handsome youth. She does not see her husband and Rustighello, his servant, hiding close by, who suspect that she loves the young man.
 Her heart softening towards Gennaro, Lucrezia touches his arm…
 …and he awakes, amazed by the beautiful woman before him. He tells her that there is only one woman he loves more than her—his mother, whom he has never seen.
 Gennaro relates how he was an orphan, raised in a poor fisherman’s family; but one day a mysterious soldier came to him and passed him a message saying that he should never try to discover his mother’s identity.
 Lucrezia urges him, nevertheless, to love his unknown parent.
 Gennaro’s friends return to the terrace and Lucrezia is instantly recognised.
 Each one tells of a family member for whose death she was responsible and when Gennaro demands to know who the woman is, they tell him that she is the dreaded Borgia; the young man is horrified and Lucrezia herself falls, pleading, at their feet.
Scene 1: A square in Ferrara
 Rustighello informs the Duke that Gennaro is now living in Ferrara and in this very square.
 The Duke looks forward to his grim revenge on the young man…
 …whom he believes to be his wife’s lover.
 Gennaro, with his friends, leaves the lodgings and, showing his scorn for the Borgia family, defaces the initial letter of their name on the crest on the palace wall, leaving simply the vile word ‘orgia’. The companions see that they are being watched and leave the square, while Gennaro returns to his house.
 Rustighello re-enters, heavily cloaked, and is joined by another figure, Astolfo. Both are searching for Gennaro, the one at the Duke’s behest, the other at Lucrezia’s.
 When Rustighello’s henchmen join him, Astolfo is forced to leave the square and he departs, outmanoeuvred.
Scene 2: Inside the Ducal Palace
 Gennaro has been apprehended by the Duke’s men. Two wine decanters, one of gold and the other of silver, are ordered to be prepared for the Duke. The gold one contains poison for which he will soon have a use.
 Lucrezia is furious that her crest has been spoiled, demanding vengeance on the culprit. Gennaro is brought in and Lucrezia is appalled when he confesses to the crime.
 In private, she begs her husband to spare Gennaro’s life but the Duke is adamant that the young man shall die—for he is still convinced that he and Lucrezia are lovers.
 He offers her only the choice of whether Gennaro shall die by poison or by the sword.
 Distraught, she chooses the former. When Gennaro is again brought before them he is told—treacherously—by the Duke that his life is, after all, to be spared. Gennaro recalls that on one occasion in the past he saved the life of the Duke’s father—news which the Duke hears with insincere gratitude. He offers Gennaro a glass of wine…
 …and all three characters express their different feelings at their situation.
 Lucrezia is forced to pour wine for Gennaro from the gold, whilst the Duke himself drinks from the silver decanter. Once the young man has drunk the poison, the Duke leaves and Lucrezia urges Gennaro to take the antidote that she has ready. When he has done so, she begs him to escape to safety through a secret door before her jealous husband returns.
Scene 1: A small courtyard close to Gennaro’s lodging
 Rustighello and his companions arrive, hoping to arrest Gennaro once more; they lie in wait for him.
 Orsini begs Gennaro not to leave the town immediately but to stay with him and attend a banquet hosted by Princess Negroni; Gennaro expresses his fears about remaining in Ferrara, which Orsini dismisses lightly.
 Despite his misgivings, Gennaro finally agrees to go to the banquet and the two friends decide to quit the town the next morning.
 Vowing never to be parted, whatever may befall, they leave the courtyard together.
 Rustighello has overheard it all and he tells his companions that there is now no need to arrest Gennaro, as events will tragically prove.
Scene 2: Princess Negroni’s Banqueting Hall
 The banquet is well under way…
 …when Gubetta purposefully taunts Orsini, leading to threats of a fight. The fearful ladies withdraw from the hall and…
 …peace is restored. Drinking glasses are brought in by a sinister servant and Gennaro notices that Gubetta does not taste his wine, though everyone else quaffs heartily.
 Orsini sings a drinking song but when mysterious voices are heard in a solemn funeral chant…
 …the torches in the hall go dim and the doors are found to be locked. To the horror of the guests, Lucrezia appears and tells them coldly that they have been poisoned by the wine; five coffins are prepared for them in the next room. Gennaro, whom Lucrezia had not expected to be at the banquet, declares that one more will be required—for him—and as his five companions are taken away…
 …Lucrezia implores Gennaro to take the antidote. But, as there is insufficient for all his companions too, he spurns it, preferring to die with them; as he makes to stab her, she reveals that he, like herself, is a member of the Borgia family.
 He is her son and she is the unknown mother he has for so long loved. Gennaro still refuses to save himself…
 …and, before the poison takes its fatal effect, he begs only to die in her arms. The Duke arrives, content to see that his supposed rival for Lucrezia’s love is dead. But it is Lucrezia’s own evil actions that have unwittingly brought about her son’s demise.
 After explaining to the Duke who Gennaro really was, and mourning his death, she collapses beside the dead body of her son.
Close the window