Since his Oscar nomination for Leaving Las Vegas, Mike Figgis’s films have tended towards the gothic and experimental. Versions of Miss Julie and The Duchess of Malfi (updated as Hotel) have alternated with projects like Timecode that toy with the very conventions of cinema. Figgis also composes the score for most of his own films, so as a musically literate but maverick cinéaste it was only a matter of time before the movie-struck English National Opera snapped him up.
On paper, their collaboration is indeed gothic and experimental, but in practice Figgis’s take on this literally and figuratively bloodless opera turns out to be dull and inert. The great Peter Brook would have called it ‘deadly theatre’, and not in the Borgia sense. A cluster of good singers project Donizetti’s frustrating tale of filial poisoning (oh Lucrezia, do get on and tell Gennaro you’re his mother) in a style that recalls the bad old days of ‘stand-and-deliver’ opera. Now and again the odd tilt of the head indicates a nod to drama, but such moments are rare; most of the time everyone faces out, soloists and chorus alike, and wafts the score over the footlights.
At least this means every word is audible, though that’s not necessarily a good thing. The text arrives courtesy of Paul Daniel who, as translators go, is an excellent conductor. Daniel’s return to the ENO pit garners some fleet playing from the orchestra; but that cannot excuse the flat-footed, sub-Gilbertian patter that pairs ‘nonsense’ with ‘conscience’ and ‘Chianti’ with ‘brandy’.
All praise, then, to the redoubtable Claire Rutter in the title role as she achieves operatic dignity against the odds. With her bell-like coloratura and dramatic gifts, Rutter conveys the depth of Lucrezia’s torments through tonal beauty, never belting or shrieking. Alastair Miles gives a sharply etched portrayal as Alfonso, Lucrezia’s husband, while the trouser character Orsini is successfully reimagined as a feisty young woman, sung with style by the talented Elizabeth DeShong. Most of all, the evening belongs to the American tenor Michael Fabiano as Lucrezia’s ignorant son, Gennaro. Here is an outstanding young talent whose plangent timbre heralds a dramatic Italianate singer in the Domingo mould. Just give him a year or two. Fabiano is a valuable asset but the production wastes him.
Mike Figgis intersperses the action with a handful of beautifully shot films designed to flesh out Lucrezia’s back-story. These interludes are completely out of kilter with the onstage mood and arrive heavy-laden with erotic menace and Italian delight. They are the work of a director at home with his craft; but it’s hard to fathom why Figgis contrasts Es Devlin’s portable-looking stage sets against such sumptuous on-screen images.
The opera’s the thing, though, so spare a thought for the cast, who probably thought they’d signed up for a drama; for the 3D television audience who will search in vain for the two missing dimensions, and above all for the new audiences ENO still hopes to attract through its policy of hiring untried opera directors. Such people may well pass through the doors of the Coliseum once, but after Lucrezia Borgia, would they come back for seconds?