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Lucrezia Borgia - Sex, violence & poisoning: Donizetti's lurid opera live on stage & screen

Lucrezia Borgia - Claire Rutter (photo by Stephen Cummisky)

Filmmaker Mike Figgis (opens in new tab)’s opera-directing debut, the new English National Opera (opens in new tab) production of Donizetti’s lurid Renaissance melodrama Lucrezia Borgia (opens in new tab), goes out live on Sky Arts 1 & Sky Arts 2 (opens in new tab) , and on Sky 3D (opens in new tab) tonight, as well as in over a dozen cinemas (opens in new tab) up and down the country.

Donizetti’s opera puts the ruthless, debauched, backstabbing world of the notorious Borgia family to bel canto music and tells a tale of thwarted maternal love and recoiling revenge.  Lucrezia, illegitimate daughter of a pope and brother of the murderous Cesare Borgia, tries to recover the now adult son she secretly gave away at birth, but her scheming ends in a bloodbath.

Perfect material for a film director, clearly, and Figgis certainly doesn’t shrink from showing us the Borgias’ violence and decadence, both on stage and on screen – he’s filmed four short films, interspersed through the opera, that fill in Lucrezia’s equally lurid back-story.

Lucrezia Borgia - Michael Fabiano as Gennaro (photo Stephen Cummisky)

Glossy, gorgeous, and dripping with sex, these films are luscious and compelling, but sadly the action on stage isn’t so gripping. Figgis is a newbie to opera, and it shows. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with the singers and even though he tries to enliven proceedings with eight kinkily attired actresses, who look as though they’ve come direct from one of Silvio Berlusconi’s bunga bunga (opens in new tab) parties, his staging is far too static.

Fortunately, the singing is fabulous, with Claire Rutter gloriously pulling off Lucrezia’s coloratura flights, while tenor Michael Fabiano is equally strong as her son, Gennaro. Shame, though, that the words they’re singing – conductor Paul Daniel’s English translation of the Italian libretto – often sound like clumsy doggerel.

With the exception of his filmed inserts, Figgis’s handling of Donizetti’s opera is surprisingly conservative – so it will be interesting to see what cinematic maverick Terry Gilliam (opens in new tab) does with the form when he directs Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust (opens in new tab) for ENO in May.

Lucrezia Borgia plays for 3 further performances at ENO on Feb 23, 25 & Mar 3 at 7.30pm.

Photos by Stephen Cummisky.

A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.