Lucrezia Borgia was a renaissance genius
Gaetano Donizetti proved to contemporary audiences that he could also write dramatic works with his opera Lucrezia Borgia. This work, directed by Ferenc Anger and performed in semi-staged form at Müpa Budapest on 18 November, occupies a very special place among the works of this highly prolific composer. The director says that the Duchess of Modena was a woman who merely wove the well-known bloody stories of historical legend around the figure of the Duchess of Modena, a woman who was in fact completely at the mercy of her family and controlled by the political interests of the day. We also spoke to her about the play and the excellent casting.
The name of the Borgias conjures up images of a power-seeking, bloodthirsty and vengeful royal family. Does the story of this opera confirm this stereotype?
This stereotype is based on a lot of historical rumours, which are in no way confirmed facts. What history can prove is that this family existed and that Lucrezia Borgia was a woman of great stature in the dynasty. But for all the horrors that have been attached to her name by contemporary rumours, there is no evidence. The historiography does not attest to her incest, her immense lust for power, or her seemingly unbridled desire for revenge, which manifested itself in her poisoning of scores of people.
Who was the original author of this story?
Victor Hugo wrote his drama around 1830, and Felice Romani based the libretto for the Donizetti opera on it. He saw in it a cliché that could be perfectly adapted for the stage. Let us not forget that we are in the Romantic era, which was about the possibility of putting on stage the quite extreme emotions that were expressed in the ruling families. Romani was not afraid to use these stereotypes, nor was he afraid to romanticise Lucrezia Borgia. From now on, however, we are not talking about historical record, but about romanticising the human trait, the frailty, the complexity of character.
How do you see the relevance of this work? The theme is certainly eternal.
When Müpa Budapest asked me to direct the piece, I was delighted to say yes. It was not originally in my plans, but it is worth knowing that this opera is a very special work. On the one hand, its genre, which is bel canto, but even within that, it is not typical. The interesting thing for me about great bel canto operas in general is that we rarely have access to this genre in Hungary. It is more likely that we see pieces that are considered to be the delicacies of the field, but there are no bel canto operas in the repertoire. When we mention opera to someone, they think of bel canto music, even if they might not be fully aware of it. Within this, Lucrezia Borgia is a gem.
What makes it so precious?
It is special, for example, in the absence of a romantic thread. It is true that there is a very intense marital relationship between the soprano protagonist and her bassist husband. Usually it’s between the tenor and the soprano, but in this drama it’s between mother and son. So there is also a great soprano and tenor duet, but it is a scene of a mother and her concealed son meeting, while the son does not know that the woman he is meeting is his mother.
What do you think is the real drama in this work, the complexity and tragic ending of the mother-son relationship or the inherently tragic story of the protagonist woman?
This is exactly the very reason why we have kept the milieu of the play in the Renaissance, where sciences and arts start to develop and man becomes the focus and the measure of everything. In fact, Lucrezia Borgia is a Renaissance person who combines the sciences and the arts. In one person, she becomes the measure of all things, on the one hand, and on the other, she is the object of her entire life up to that point. This duality is borne out by historical facts. She was put at the service of the family’s interests by drastic methods.
From an early age, she was raised to serve the interests of the extended family. Her father, who became Pope Alexander VI and is known as Pope Borgia the Great, forced her to marry for the first time at the age of thirteen, and then twice more later on. These marriages were contracted in the service of the political interests of the Borgia family, and if these interests so desired, the husbands were even put out of the way. This woman therefore had no independent will. Meanwhile, she poisons and resurrects as the ultimate tamer of natural law, the master of life and death, working with poisons and antidotes. When first visualising her, I saw a Renaissance genius with a perfect knowledge of the elements, substances and natural laws. In this way she becomes the master of life and death.
The lead role is also very difficult from the singer’s point of view, as it requires a great deal of soprano virtuosity to sing.
Indeed, in this role there is no pardon, everything must be sung as Donizetti wrote it. Our leading lady is Yolanda Auyanet, an excellent Spanish bel canto soprano singer. For me, the rehearsal process has been an incredible experience and a great adventure.
It is an honour for me to work with these big names. Andriy Yurkevich is the conductor of the Pannon Philharmonic Orchestra, with the Honvéd Férfikórus. The Romanian bel canto tenor Stefan Pop, a highly sought-after singer on the international stage, will play the role of Gennaro, and Gábor Bretz will be our leading bassist as Lucrezia Borgia’s husband, the Duke of Ferrara. David Astorga will sing the role of Don Alfonso’s servant and Cecilia Molinari, also a serious bel canto expert, will sing the female role of the trouser wearing Comte Orsini. The audience at the Müpa Budapest will see singers who have sung the piece before, and perhaps what made this encounter all the more exciting was the opportunity to work with artists who have deep experience of the work.
Do you use different directing methods when working with international singers?
The first thing is always to find a common language, which in the world of opera is usually Italian, but because of our two Spanish singers we actually spoke four languages during rehearsals, English, Spanish, Italian and Hungarian. The working method is the same and, if possible, even more intense than usual, because we had a short rehearsal period and our performance was semi-staged. In such cases, I always strive to give a full-fledged performance for otherwise wonderful stage conditions. Within the right limits, I always feel that my freedom is infinite, but I have to bear in mind that I am not working in a theatre, but in a concert hall. It’s an invisible contract between the audience and us, because they know how such a performance differs from a traditional one. But this should not exempt us from giving the audience a performance of full value.
I think the front row cast is breathtaking. It gives the audience a chance to see vocal bravura in a piece that is rarely seen. On the other hand, because of the uniqueness of the work, you will see a very intense drama, not a clichéd dramaturgy. This opera explores very interesting questions, such as where the boundaries of love and affection lie in different types of relationships, and the incredibly diverse palette of human attractions and repulsions.
Interview: Anna Rácz
Translation: Nóra Fehér