Melbourne Opera: Lucrezia Borgia review

Generously staged and splendidly sung, bel canto gem Lucrezia Borgia sparkles under the loving polish of Melbourne Opera. 

Not seen for some thirty years in Melbourne, Gaetano Donizetti’s tight, vibrant opera is a joy to hear, brimming with instantly hummable melodies and vengeful drama. 

The relatively simple plot sees noble Genarro dream of his mother only to discover she is none other than the fearsome Lucrezia Borgia. Although seen as a monster in court, Lucrezia is guided by her motherly instinct to save Genarro, only to later lose him when she wipes out half of the lead cast in a vengeful mass murder.

Based upon the play Lucrezia Borgia by Victor Hugo, the briskness of Felice Romano’s libretto makes for entertaining viewing, although the rapid pace allows precious little depth to the narrative, which tends to minimise the dramatic stakes by the time of the broad tragedy of the finale

Director Gary Abraham may be new to opera direction but proves himself right at home, telling the story in suitably bold strokes, painting visually appealing stage pictures, and even somehow mastering the narrow wing space of the Athenaeum to have the Ensemble come and go with ease. Abraham works effectively with his lead performers to bring as much weight as possible to the story, yet they are all battling with the lightness of the libretto.

Greg Carroll’s settings are on an impressively lavish scale, the curtain opening on a glossy stage with gleaming midnight blue terrazzo-effect tarkett floor framed by gilded royal blue tabs so pristine they make the proscenium arch of the Athenaeum look shabby in comparison. In act one, the Duke’s chambers are created with the addition of a full set of verdant green panels, In act two, Princess Negroni’s party scene features shimmering hot pink curtains flanking a full height floral display.  

Lighting designer NIklas Pajanti adds to the visual interest with a gently rotating effect in the overhead rear wall lighting, creating a subtle suggestion of continuous movement. 

Bringing to life Abrahams’ vision of a House of Gucci theme, costume designer Harriet Oxley delivers further colour, outfitting the crowd in deliberately gaudy Eurotrash designer wear. While the exact time period is somewhat indeterminate, the overall effect fits the opera well, with black-clad mafioso henchmen providing a threatening background to the action. Curiously, leading man Genarro scores the dullest outfit; in contrast, Lucrezia herself shimmers in flowing gold and black before switching to a majestic purple gown with charcoal robe. 

Chorus master Raymond Lawrence returns to the podium to conduct the first two (of four) performances. Lawrence immediately commands the audience’s attention, as the voluminous Melbourne Opera Orchestra conveys a stirring sense of drama from the first phrases of the overture. Orchestral playing occasionally threatens to over power soloists but when the full company and orchestra are at full strength the result is wonderfully thrilling. 

Special mention of lovely playing from harpist Samantha Ramirez for the “Tranquillo ei posa” introduction of Lucrezia’s first aria “Com’è bello!”. In a clever highlight of Donizetti’s score, the maestro serves up a particularly toe-tapping brindisi (“Il segreto per esser felici”) while half a dozen characters partake of a deadly glass of wine. 

With each party playing to their strengths, this brand new production is deservedly built around the talents of ever rising Melbourne-born diva Helena Dix. Heard in arguably her best form to date, Dix displays heavenly control across the full range of her vocal performance, particularly her exquisite pianissimo phrases. 

With Lucrezia built up as a monster, Dix enters and melts hearts with a mother’s love for her son fairly pouring out of her as she sings “Com’è bello.” A generous performer, Dix enjoys chemistry with each of her co-stars, clearly conveying the inner storm of conflict the heretofore heartless woman battles. 

Dix brings the house down with Lucrezia’s closing cabaletta “Era desso il figlio mio,” deftly making the extraordinary vocal fireworks of this most demanding of arias seem like second nature.

Having fast become a favourite of Melbourne Opera audiences, tenor James Egglestone returns to play the ill-fated Gennaro. Egglestone sings with characteristically bright tone, well supported with a magnetic acting performance. 

Baritone Christopher Hillier avoids moustache-twirling villainy as Duke Alfonso, simply playing him as a darkly driven despot. In warm voice, Hillier partners capably with Dix and Egglestone in climactic act one trio “Guai se ti sfugge un moto, Se ti tradisce un detto!”. 

Unrecognisable in pantsuit and page boy wig, redoubtable mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd brings dynamic flair to Orsini, devoted friend to Genarro. Shepherd brings welcome levity when Orsini mimics the walk of a woman, and vivaciously commands the full stage with delightful brindisi “Il segreto per esser felici.”

Tenor Alastair Cooper-Golec impressively seizes upon the featured role of Rustighello, playing him as a mischievous Iago to the Duke’s Otello. In gangsta tracksuit and gold chains, stalwart bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i shines in a wonderful cameo as Astolfo. 

Luxury casting continues with Adrian Tamburini as Gazella, with further sterling support from Christopher Busietta, Louis Hurley, Adam Jon and Christopher Tonkin. 

Hopefully we will not have to wait another thirty years for Lucrezia Borgia. Meanwhile, local opera lovers are strongly encouraged to enjoy this delightful production. 

Lucrezia Borgia plays select dates at Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne until 6 September 2022. For tickets, click here.

Photos: Robin Halls

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