It was 33 years ago that Emilio Sagi, former artistic director of Teatro Real Madrid and Teatro Arriaga Bilbao, first directed rising star Mariella Devia in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. The soprano now known as the last prima donna of the Italian old school has long since graduated from the role of young widow Norina, and for the past three decades has reigned supreme as Donizetti’s various tragic queens. Lucrezia Borgia is another opera by the Bergamo-born composer, based on the play by Victor Hugo and the legend of the femme fatale daughter of Pope Alexander VI. It is an ideal reunion for Devia and Sagi, putting Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía once again on the operatic hotspot.
You can always rely on Sagi for a virtuous traditional production in a non-traditional sense. This much-improved ‘new production’ is a luxuriant version of a low-budget Oviedo showcase from over a decade ago. Llorenç Corbella’s set is handsomely monochrome, cleverly doubling as a fantastic acoustic shell, with the added opulence of metallic surfaces and stunning amber lights from lighting designer Eduardo Bravo. Equally dazzling are the flattering costumes by Pepa Ojanguren. During the brief prelude we see a black and white video projection of Lucrezia playing with her young son Gennaro before he is taken away. This adds a layer of resonant depth to the characters, and the toys we see here later appear in Gennaro’s house during his crucial self-assessment in act II. Sagi also approaches the friendship between Gennaro and his best friend Orsini with deft psychological incision. He works in a kiss between them during their farewell duet that unfolds naturally and rather touchingly. The rest of the drama unveils straightforwardly.
It would be hard to deny that Lucrezia Borgia is anything but a vehicle for the prima donna of the show, and Mariella Devia does not disappoint. Even before she sings a single note, swanning about on a gondola with easy grace, Devia majestically commands the stage. Her opening romanza displays impeccable youthful vivacity, yet is full of tenderness, too. Her ornamentations are always tasteful and expressive. Her firmness of intonation and legendary breath-control are even more remarkable – exquisite for a singer in their prime, let alone someone in their 60s. The famous finale (with the tamer but more dramatically sound La Scala version of the cabaletta) is executed with pathos, as Devia dispatches fierce yet effortless high notes that keep you on the edge of your seat.
For these reasons it is difficult to see the supporting cast in the same league (and compared with Devia, this is no great criticism). American tenor William Davenport, as the vulnerable Gennaro, matches her only in the expressiveness of his singing. Marko Mimica’s authoritative and devilishly handsome Alfonso d’Este, Lucrezia’s fourth husband, produces quite a sound. Donizetti wrote passages in this opera that were atypical to his style and more towards what became later known as the Verdian lines – Mimica’s style reflects more of the latter, with less subtlety and not enough agility for Alfonso’s cavatina, usually one of the opera’s show-stopping numbers. Valencian mezzo Silvia Tro Santafé however displays impressive range – her Orsini is a ball of fire on stage, bringing to life the stubbornness and carefree nature of the character.
It is an exciting prospect here to see the artistic director of the house, Davide Livermore, appointing the brilliant musician and baroque specialist Fabio Biondi as music director (together with Roberto Abbado). It allows Biondi to branch out in new repertoires such as this. Although his attention to detail and sensitivity is evident, his tempi are somewhat conservative, and it is obvious that he is not yet at home with the bel canto.
The Borgia family may have boasted 2 popes, 1 saint and an infamous legend to go with their unmatched wealth, but the Valencians haven’t quite come to terms with the fact that they were one of their own. The Borgias contributed a great deal to the arts, if through self-grandiosity – just like the musical contribution that this production offers. Devia has brought home this iconic historical character with her own brand of operatic royalty, a bel canto singing at its best with a masterclass in vocal longevity thrown into the mix. And it’s nothing short of spectacular.