Lucrezia Borgia

Music by Gaetano Donizetti

Libretto by Felice Romani

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Renée Fleming, “America’s most-loved and most-lauded opera singer” (The Times, London), returns to San Francisco Opera in the title role of this melodically rich bel canto masterpiece. A femme fatale renowned for her ruthless pursuit of power reveals poignant vulnerability when she comes face to face with her long-lost son. The silken-voiced soprano sings this touchstone role “with raw intensity and earthy richness, utterly inhabiting the character” (The New York Times). She will be joined by "rising American tenor Michael Fabiano [who] shone as Gennaro, his warm lyric tone founded on long-breathed phrasing and a well-shaped line" (Opera News), and bass Vitalij Kowaljow, who sings with a “potent blend of vocal weight and emotional transparency” (San Francisco Chronicle); mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, whose "big, bright and pleasing voice was wonderful as Orsini" (The New York Times); and led by internationally acclaimed conductor Riccardo Frizza.

Sung in Italian with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes including two intermissions

Washington National Opera production

Production photo: Renée Fleming in Washington National Opera production of Lucrezia Borgia by Karin Cooper
Additional photos: Cory Weaver

Audio credit: Audio excerpts are from the Naxos recording of Lucrezia Borgia with the Orchestra of the Bergamo Music Festival conducted by Tiziano Severini (Naxos 8.660257-58)


Lucrezia Borgia Renée Fleming
Maffio Orsini Elizabeth DeShong
Gennaro Michael Fabiano *
Alfonso d’Este Vitalij Kowaljow
Rustighello Daniel Montenegro
Jeppo Liverotto Christopher Jackson
Oloferno Vitellozzo Brian Jagde
Apostolo Gazello Austin Kness
Astolfo Ryan Kuster
Ascanio Petrucci Ao Li *
Gubetta Igor Vieira

Production Credits

Conductor Riccardo Frizza *
Director John Pascoe *
Production Designer John Pascoe
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Lighting Designer Jeff Bruckerhoff *

* San Francisco Opera Debut


PROLOGUE - The Palazzo Grimani in Venice
Gennaro and his friends celebrate on the brightly lit terrace, in front of which lies the Giudecca canal. The friends’ conversation turns to Don Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, to whose house they will be travelling the next day, and to his wife, the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. On hearing Lucrezia’s name, Orsini tells of how Gennaro and he, alone in a forest, were warned by a mysterious old man to beware her and the entire Borgia family. Professing his boredom with Orsini’s tale Gennaro wanders off and falls asleep nearby. His friends are invited to rejoin the festivities, and he is left alone. A gondola appears and a masked woman steps onto the terrace. She hurries over to the sleeping Gennaro and observes him with affection. She kisses his hand, he wakes and is instantly struck by her beauty. He expresses his love for her and sings of his childhood as an orphan brought up by fishermen. He adds that he loves dearly the mother he has never met. The others return and instantly recognize her as Lucrezia Borgia, listing in turn the members of their families she has killed to Gennaro’s horror.
ACT I - Ferrara
The Duke, believing Gennaro to be Lucrezia’s lover, plots his murder with his servant Rustighello and his companions leave the house for a party and pass the Duke’s palace with its large gilded coat of arms reading ‘Borgia’. Keen to show his contempt for the Borgia family, Gennaro removes the initial ‘”B,” leaving the obscene “Orgia” (“orgy”).
In the palace, Lucrezia is shown into the Duke’s chamber. Having seen the defaced crest, she demands death for the perpetrator, not knowing that it is Gennaro. The Duke orders Gennaro to be brought before her and accuses him of staining the noble name of Borgia, a crime to which he readily confesses. Lucrezia, horrified, attempts to excuse the insult as a youthful prank, but Don Alfonso accuses Lucrezia of infidelity, having observed her meeting with Gennaro in Venice. In a scene full of drama and tension, she denies any impropriety, but he demands the prisoner’s death and forces her to choose the manner of Gennaro’s execution. Pretending to pardon him, the Duke offers Gennaro a glass of wine and he swallows it. The Duke leaves and Lucrezia hurries to Gennaro, giving him an antidote to the poison the Duke has mixed with the wine. He drinks, and she implores him to flee the city and her husband.
ACT II - The palace of the Princess Negroni
Ignoring Lucrezia’s advice, Gennaro attends a party at the palace, swearing never to be parted from his friend Orsini. Orsini leads the party in a drinking song.Lucrezia enters and announces that in revenge for their insults in Venice she has poisoned their wine and arranged five coffins for their bodies. She has hitherto believed that Gennaro fled Ferrara on her advice, and is thus dismayed when he steps forward and announces that she has poisoned a sixth. Orsini, Liverotto, Vitellozzo, Petrucci, and Gazella fall dead. Gennaro seizes a dagger and attempts to kill Lucrezia, but she stops him by revealing that he is in fact her son. Once again she asks him to drink the antidote, but this time he refuses, choosing to die with his friends. Lucrezia mourns her son and dies.

Secrets and Masks: Bel Canto as Drama in Lucrezia Borgia

Thomas May

A look at Donizetti's rarely performed masterpiece based on one of history's most notorious femme fatales.

Lucrezia Borgia, painted in 1863 by Alfred Elmore
(courtesy Bridgeman Art Library)
The premiere of Lucrezia Borgia on December 26, 1833 came at a crucial period in the 36-year-old Gaetano Donizetti’s career. Although he had already accumulated substantial experience writing for the stage—by this point his complete list of operas, including incomplete and unperformed scores, tallied more than 40—the composer was riding the crest of fame that had really begun with the success of his “lyrical tragedy” Anna Bolena three years earlier. The appearance of Lucia di Lammermoor in 1835, just a few days after rival Vincenzo Bellini’s early death, would accelerate Donizetti’s growing reputation as the dominant figure of Italian opera until he succumbed to the ravages of syphilis in 1843, after which he was reduced to a state of insanity for the five years of life that remained to him. As he faded from the scene, a young composer named Giuseppe Verdi began to emerge as the harbinger of a new operatic era.
Donizetti earned admiration and envy alike for his ability to maintain a prolific output that was regarded as extraordinary even in the context of a business that demanded speedy working habits. A vivid caricature exists from around the time he had begun to conquer the operatic capital of Paris in the early 1840s, overseeing productions of his work there in multiple venues. It shows the composer using both hands to create two separate operas simultaneously. Deadlines tended to be notoriously tight (certainly the case with Lucrezia Borgia), while the clout of star singers often led to the need to patch in last-minute requests to satisfy their egos. As an indication of the power of star performers, the fee commanded by the prima donna originally cast as Lucrezia was nearly ten times that of the composer.
Despite such intense pressures, which he faced throughout his career, Donizetti was by no means satisfied with churning out predictable material. Success had been hard won, but as he began finally to taste it, the composer remained intent on posing new challenges for himself that addressed both the musical and the dramatic dimensions of the genre, seeking a tighter integration of the two. The late William Ashbrook, the long-reigning American authority on the composer, writes that the year 1833, which produced Lucrezia Borgia as well three other operas, “marked a new level of more consistent achievement for Donizetti. While these operas are not without unevenness, they show his increasing ability to sustain dramatic expressiveness beyond the compass of single numbers.” Ashbrook finds in Lucrezia Borgia in particular “the clear emergence of a manner that can be labeled distinctively Donizettian for all his retention of structures that were by now traditional.”
Thanks in part to Wagnerian propaganda but also to later developments of Italian opera spearheaded by Verdi and the verismo composers, an ingrained misperception persists that bel canto style must confine its focus to vocal pyrotechnics and limpid melody—to the detriment of genuine dramatic sense. But the cliché of bel canto as an exhibitionist art merely intended to delight “canary fanciers” ignores the integral role assigned to the music as a vehicle to intensify the emotional significance of the dramatic moment onstage. “The dramatic vision in Lucrezia Borgia,” Ashbrook aptly remarks, “rarely dims.” Based on material that underlines the composer’s “appetite for strong situations,” he adds, the opera inspired Donizetti to treat each of these moments by imagining “a musical frisson that effectively heightens the dramatic effect.”

Act I costume design by John Pascoe
The subject matter indeed elicited considerable enthusiasm from Donizetti, though he was well aware of the headaches it would cause in getting through the tightly authoritarian censorship system to which new operas were subjected in the decades before Italy’s unification. Following a roller coaster of successes and failures at Milan’s rival companies, in October 1833 Donizetti was offered a contract by La Scala’s director, Duke Carlo Visconti di Modrone. (The Duke hailed from the wealthy Milanese family that later produced film director Luchino Visconti.) The contract called for two new operas, with the first to open the upcoming Carnival season—a slot filled somewhat ironically by Lucrezia Borgia, given its macabre take on the theme of partying.
None other than Felice Romani, the finest operatic poet of the era, was assigned as librettist. Romani had written for Rossini and Bellini and had previously worked with Donizetti as well on Anna Bolena, L’Elisir d’Amore, and several other operas. Their collaboration on Lucrezia, however, was riddled with tension. Donizetti proved increasingly keen on exercising control over his subject matter, and Romani found the censorship issue particularly vexing. A story centered around a historical character who was the illegitimate daughter of a pope and who embodied the popular conception of a murderous femme fatale would, after all, manage only to stoke the flames. And on top of all that, a prominent family in Milan thought to be descended from the Borgias made the need for diplomacy and compromise even more essential.  “I could not treat this subject better,” fumed the librettist, “nor proceed more carefully on account of the censorship.”
Of course the historical Lucrezia Borgia herself had long since been regarded as the epitome of controversial subject matter across the arts. Her image was rife with implications of incest, illicit desire, and fear of female power but had recently begun to be reclaimed by such voices of the Romantic revolution as Victor Hugo. His fictional treatment of her in his five-act play Lucrèce Borgia caused a great stir when it opened in February 1833 in Paris and supplied the direct source from which the opera was adapted. Donizetti and Romani were forced to tone down some of the play’s more over-the-top elements, including the climactic scene, in which Gennaro actually succeeds in stabbing his mother before dying from the wine she has poisoned. (In the opera she is left to “faint lifeless” over her son’s corpse.) 

Idealized Portrait of Courtesan as Flora by Bartolomeo de Veneto,
traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia
(courtesy ARTOTHEK)
Hugo and Donizetti belong to an ongoing, highly varied list of artists who have invested Lucrezia Borgia with a mythic resonance, and this fascination shows no signs of waning. In popular culture, her fictive persona ranges from appearances in Norman Corwin’s famous radio play of 1938, The Plot to Overthrow Christmas (where she teams up with baddies like Ivan the Terrible and an assortment of nasty Roman emperors), to contemporary manga and the latest season of the priapic Showtime series, The Borgias.
Despite all the exaggerations of legend and folklore, the actual Lucrezia, one of several illegitimate children the future Pope Alexander VI sired with Vannozza dei Cattanei, one of his mistresses, is no less intriguing. Lucrezia lived during a period of historical crossroads: born during the Renaissance in 1480, she died in childbirth in 1519, two years after Martin Luther launched the Reformation with his 95 Theses. In 1492 her father, Rodrigo Borgia, who came from a family of Valencian ancestry considered outsiders by the Romans, was elected pope. His choice of the name Alexander points to the Renaissance vogue for classical precedents, which is also apparent in the names he selected for two of his children, Cesare and Lucrezia. (The latter, referring to the ancient Roman icon of wifely virtue, was actually used with snickering irony by the family’s many enemies—not unlike Gennaro’s wordplay in the opera between “Borgia” and “orgia.”)
“She was a woman of her time,” writes biographer Sarah Bradford, “well educated in humanist literature, speaking Italian, Catalan, French, and Latin and capable of writing poetry in those languages; she also had understanding of Greek. She had been taught eloquence and could express herself elegantly in public speech. She loved music and poetry… and learned to dance with skill and grace.” And though she belonged to “a world in which male dominance was taken for granted” and was forced by her family in and out of marriages for political advantage, eventually “she ruled over a magnificent court with herself as the focus of a circle of poets and intellectuals.”
But Lucrezia Borgia also suffered a certain guilt by association with the nefarious doings of her extended family, including her ruthless brother, Cesare, whose tactics come up for discussion in Machiavelli’s The Prince. In her own lifetime she began to acquire mythic status as an archetypal femme fatale. What proves so striking in Hugo’s fictional reimagining is the resonance he attributes to Lucrezia as a sort of female Byronic hero beset by intense contradictions: the gently maternal affection of her opening scene frames the entire opera and is tragically juxtaposed with her image as a vengeful ogress. (For his part, Lord Byron actually confessed to stealing a strand of Lucrezia’s golden hair kept with a stash of her love letters which he had sought out in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.)
Clearly what attracted Donizetti so magnetically to this material—despite having to blunt some of its edge—was the sense of musical and dramatic possibilities he sensed could be generated by these contradictions. In each act, a different aspect of Lucrezia comes to the fore. She longs to connect to her past and the impossibly lost innocence Gennaro represents in the Prologue; her relationship with Don Alfonso in Act I shows the world of power politics in which she operates, while her penchant for exacting cruel vengeance propels the doom-laden finale. Gennaro’s defacement of the Borgia crest serves as a neat metaphor for the versatile associations of which this anti-heroine is capable. Yet holding all of her contradictory motivations together is the sheer force of her personality. Small wonder that the role’s challenges have proved especially attractive to generations of charismatic sopranos.  In the decades since the bel canto revival, they have included such divas as Montserrat Caballé, Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Edita Gruberova, and, of course, Renée Fleming. (Curiously, despite seeming so tailor-made for her, Maria Callas never performed the entire role.)
The role’s challenges go beyond the ones typically associated with a bel canto showpiece and demand dramatic involvement and presence. In fact, Donizetti was dead-set against providing a coloratura cabaletta as Lucrezia mourns over her dead son, insisting on its dramatic inappropriateness. But he had to give in to the demand of Henriette Méric-Lalande, the French-born singer who created the role, for this more conventional finale. Later, when Donizetti revamped the score for a production in 1840, he revised the finale by omitting the cabaletta “Era desso il figlio mio” and providing a new aria for the dying Gennaro.

Act III of John Pascoe's production of Lucrezia Borgia
(courtesy Washington National Opera)
Still, the standard compromise in contemporary productions—as in the one we are seeing—is to combine both the old and new finales. In dramatic terms, the rapid sequence of emotions here neatly reprises the essential conflict of the opera as one between Gennaro’s naïve, almost folklike directness and the artfulness of his mother—between innocence and experience. A sensitive performer and director can transform the florid outbursts with which Lucrezia caps her mournful passion into a combination of bel canto mad scene and Liebestod. (The aching melody of Gennaro’s cantilena, incidentally, seems to prefigure one of the more haunting motifs from the love scene of the end of Act I of Die Walküre.)
The contradictions of the central character infuse the opera as a whole, beginning with the contrast of the gloomy prelude set against the intentionally superficial-sounding festive music of Gennaro and his comrades in the Venetian Prologue. With wonderful symmetry, Donizetti here foreshadows the opera’s tragic course, when this pattern is reversed in the last act, from careless joy to fatal dread. Orsini’s brindisi is the best-known excerpt from the score, but how much more effective is the jaunty tune of this drinking song in its full context, juxtaposed against the Gothic tolling of bells and requiem chanting. It perfectly establishes the Edgar Allan Poe-like horror of the concluding scene, which brings the terrifying vision Orsini had recounted in his opening ballad chillingly before us and equates Lucrezia with death itself.
Although Alfonso’s unfounded jealousy seems to want to reshape the story into the familiar form of a love triangle, Lucrezia Borgia prodded Donizetti to make a number of remarkable innovations. The most obvious of these is the displacement of a conventional love story by hints of “illicit” love—both in the fervor of Gennaro’s feelings for the masked woman to whom he is so instinctively drawn (with the resulting hint of incestuous passion) and in the homoerotic implications of the attachment that fatally binds him, against his better judgment, to his friend Orsini, which are underlined in director John Pascoe’s interpretation of the opera.
In formal terms as well, Donizetti plays with the conventions: much as he refocuses the lengthy love duet between mother and son to encompass Gennaro’s solo (and, again, folklike) account of his background, the thrilling trio ending the first act narrows according to the dramatic momentum into a duet. Similarly, Donizetti etches his secondary characters—the spies in particular—with great economy to establish the violence-prone nature of the milieu in which the opera unfolds. The entire effect is to enhance the atmosphere of disguised appearances, uncertain identities, intrigue, and nocturnal ambiguity that underlies Lucrezia Borgia. Ambiguity indeed is the heart of the matter here, where secrets are revealed too late and masks untimely removed.
The passion of Donizetti’s music, meanwhile, suggests that something deeper than unfortunate coincidence is at play. What seems stagey melodrama on the surface is rooted in the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that define Lucrezia’s tragic hold over Gennaro and his comrades. Her ultimate victimization, Donizetti seems to suggest, lies in Lucrezia’s compulsion to play the role in which she has been cast—the curse of the Borgias—and from which she had hoped to spare her son.
One member of Lucrezia’s first audiences, the young Giuseppe Verdi—then a student in Milan—must have been deeply impressed indeed. For a pivotal opera of his own, Verdi would later turn to the play Hugo had written the year before Lucrèce Borgia: Le Roi S’Amuse, which became the basis for Rigoletto. Hugo described the thread shared by both plays, written as an intentionally complementary pair, in terms of parent-child relationships. While the latter shows “paternity sanctifying physical deformity,” in the playwright’s phrase, the former represents “maternity purifying moral deformity.”
Donizetti scholar Herbert Weinstock sees nothing less here than a capsule summary of the evolution of Italian opera in the first half of the nineteenth century: “Certainly the shift in the texture of Italian opera from the classical Romanticism of Rossini’s opera seria and all of Bellini to the controlled blood-and-thunder of Verdi nowhere is prefigured better than in the strongest scenes of Anna Bolena and Lucrezia Borgia.”

Thomas May writes frequently for San Francisco Opera. He is the author of Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader.

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Giving Life to Lucrezia

Roger Pines

Renowned soprano Renée Fleming discusses her history at San Francisco Opera and her love for the bel canto repertoire. 

photo by Andrew Eccles 
Although today’s opera-going public instantly thinks of Renée Fleming as the Strauss and Massenet heroine par excellence, the internationally beloved American soprano has also triumphed repeatedly in the bel canto repertory—a style of singing from seventeeth and eighteenth-century Italy stressing ease, purity, and evenness of tone production and a lithe and precise vocal technique. In the course of her career, Fleming has starred in Rossini’s Armida and Il Viaggio a Reims; Bellini’s La Sonnambula, La Straniera, and Il Pirata; and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, Maria Padilla, and, for a recording, Rosmonda d’Inghilterra. Armida (Pesaro Festival production) was her first opera CD, and she won the first of her three Grammys for her album entitled Bel Canto. Speaking by phone in New York immediately following nearly two months of performances in Europe, Fleming discussed her association with San Francisco Opera and the title role of Lucrezia Borgia. This opera, her eighth with the company, will exhibit Fleming’s prowess in bel canto to San Francisco audiences for the first time.

You debuted with many companies as Mozart’s Countess Almaviva, including SFO in 1991. What was particularly special about that debut?
As a result of those performances, General Director Lotfi Mansouri helped me to forge a fruitful relationship with the theater that included role debuts and two world premieres. Every young singer needs impresarios who believe in them and are willing to help them in their development. David Gockley was my first and primary relationship in those formative years, and Lotfi soon after. I also enjoyed working with director John Copley, who helped me create many of my signature roles, teaching me how to move in period costumes, how to handle a fan and generally inhabit this new world. He usually demonstrated, and with more grace than I could hope for!
Your only staged productions of Hérodiade and Louise were at SFO.
Both roles I felt were slightly too dramatic for me at the time, or perhaps more importantly, I wasn’t yet experienced enough to comfortably manage the more dramatic scenes. Singing with Plácido Domingo for the first time was a special thrill! As Louise, other than in “Depuis le jour,” I had difficulty balancing her vulnerability with the drama of the music. My favorite scene however, was the final confrontation with her father, played by Samuel Ramey.
Fleming opposite Thomas Hampson in The Dangerous Liaisons (left)
and Rod Gilfrey in
A Streetcar Named Desire (right)
(photos by Marty Sohl)
At SFO you also created Mme. de Tourvel in The Dangerous Liaisons (by Conrad Susa and Philip Littell) and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire (by André Previn and Philip Littell).
I was thrilled to be involved in the premiere of Dangerous Liaisons, working with Thomas Hampson and the brilliant Frederica von Stade. The production values were terrific—both operas directed by Colin Graham. He was a joy to work with, collaborative and helpful. Streetcar came at a crisis period in my career that was fraught with stagefright. I was worried that Blanche would put me over the edge, but with the support and understanding of André Previn, she became a healing force, and a character I could channel pain and doubt through.
What is most vivid in your mind in thinking of your time in San Francisco?
For me, the San Francisco experience has also been about being there with my two daughters when they were young, almost every year for ten years or so. Revisiting such a beautiful city, exploring it—the closeness of so much natural beauty and so much wonder. We retell many stories from when we were there. It’s really part of our family history, as well as my singing history.
Your return to SFO as Lucrezia prompted me to consider the path you’ve taken in bel canto during your career. The first of eight operas in that repertoire was Il Pirata with Eve Queler’s Opera Orchestra of New York in 1989. When you were first considering your future in opera, was bel canto part of your thinking?
As a student, and in the audition years, I believed that you couldn’t have a career if you didn’t sing bel canto. The top sopranos sang it—Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Montserrat Caballé. This was beautiful music that focused on the art of singing, and I was determined to try and master our most virtuosic arias! This repertoire turned out to be incredibly important in my education. It did slow me down, in terms of my professional development: I kept trying to audition with these arias, and I didn’t sing them well enough. If I’d been singing Mozart or something with much less range— even Handel—I suspect I would have started performing a few years earlier. I credit Mozart as one of my first “voice teachers,” and bel canto certainly factors in as well.
What has this style given you musically?
My years of improvising in jazz clubs enabled me to develop some skill in decoration, embellishment, and with cadenzas. Now I work with musicologist Philip Gossett, along with talented coaches who suggest decorations, but it’s more fun to be actively involved in the process. Eve Queler was the most important figure for me in this, given how many roles I sang with her. She taught me how to tailor-make those decorations to my voice, and how to be smart about knowing what is comfortable. The hard part is that this repertoire generally sits right in the passaggio, which is challenging— that’s the first hurdle. You have to have range, fioriture, trills, messa di voce. It’s a phenomenal exercise. The great 19th-century schools of singing were all based on bel canto.
People frequently underestimate how dramatic bel canto repertoire can be.
I had an amazing conversation with Beverly Sills after Pirata [Metropolitan Opera, 2003]. She took me to lunch and said, “Why would you sing something that difficult when you could sing Norma, which is more grateful? Pirata is so long! Why would you leave blood on the floor?” Lucrezia isn’t that high, but it’s quite dramatic. There’s a reason why it was one of the last roles Joan Sutherland sang. It needs more maturity to pull it off, and not just because she’s the tenor’s mother! As with Rossini’s Armida, Lucrezia’s final scene has real bite and aggression.
Fleming in the title role of Lucrezia Borgia at Washington National Opera, 2008
(photo by Karin Cooper)
Can you sum up this opera’s appeal?
Well, it’s a very twisted story— so twisted that it’s entertaining— poisoning her son by mistake? One fascinating thing is that she’s married to the baritone, which is quite unusual. Their confrontation scene is fantastic— truly violent and very powerful. Also, the tenor isn’t really a love interest, which makes it interesting.
Do you like beginning with the entrance aria,“Com’è bello”?
I think it’s hard to start with something that lyrical, that long, and that exposed. Someone else might find it a nice warmup….
Are you glad Donizetti’s original leading lady demanded an elaborate finale for Lucrezia?
Of course! What’s a great bel canto role without a great final scene? 
In that scene, is it somewhat incongruous that this sorrowful mother bursts forth in a cabaletta with major-key coloratura?
But it’s minor and almost bluesy at the start, at “Era desso il figlio mio” (“He was my son”) and, in the second half, it’s very heroic coloratura.
Did it help to find out about the historical Lucrezia?
I’m sure it did, although there isn’t very much in the libretto that has anything to do with the real-life Lucrezia. You can find paintings of her in great museums all over the world. Characters like Lucrezia, Armida, and Cleopatra have historically captured the imaginations of composers and writers far more often than virtuous heroines have.
It’s such an interesting change for you to play this kind of person.
It’s rare for women in opera— sopranos, I should say— to be dark, vengeful, enraged. But it’s fun to have that energy onstage— to be singing and acting with full power!
 I know you have a deep interest in the artistry of your great predecessors. One can find recorded Lucrezias of Gencer, Caballè, Sutherland, Sills….
I typically listened to every available recording. When I sang Lucrezia at La Scala, Leyla Gencer was around and was lovely— very helpful and supportive. It’s always interesting to hear what other people do, especially in bel canto, because it’s the only repertoire that allows the artist any musical creative input.
What is the greatest strength of the Washington production?
Drama! [Director-designer] and dear friend, John Pascoe has helped us find a physical language that enhances the drama and the music. I’d just met my fiancé when I sang Lucrezia Borgia in this production, and I still think it’s his favorite opera. It was the drama that turned him on to the whole show and to opera in general. It also visually presents a terrific combination of period and “biker-cool” modern sensibilities. I’ve sung six productions with John Pascoe, who is a rare singer’s director. He brings out the best in us and cares as deeply about story-telling as any director in the theater would. It helps that he comes so prepared, he has the opera memorized and can sing all of our roles!
Pascoe’s costumes are spectacular. Which is your favorite?
The armor at the end, of course!
Act III costume design by John Pascoe
The libretto says Lucrezia collapses in the final moments. In this production, does she do that, or does she stab herself? Or drink the poisoned wine?
You don’t want to give that away!
Roger Pines, dramaturg of Lyric Opera of Chicago, has written for major opera companies, international recording companies, and a wide variety of American and British music publications.

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Lucrezia Borgia Facts

Statistics on this season's production of Lucrezia Borgia

Orchestra: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 timpani, 3 percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam tam, snare drum), 1 harp, 40 strings (12 first violins, 9 second violins, 7 violas, 7 cellos, 5 basses)
Backstage: 1 flute, 2 clarinets, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 1 trombone, cimbasso, 2 percussion
Personnel: 11 principals, 48 choristers, 8 supernumeraries, 9 dancers. Total: 76
Version: We are using Roger Parker’s critical edition for Ricordi (1998) and follow the modern practice of performing a hybrid version based on Donizetti’s revisions for the opera’s Paris premiere, which combines aspects of two earlier versions with respect to the final scene. This procedure has been widespread since the Donizetti revival began in the mid-to-late 20th century and can be found on the DVD of the 1980 production at Covent Garden with Joan Sutherland and Alfredo Kraus (for which our current director/designer John Pascoe created costumes).

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“Renée Fleming Sparkles in Lucrezia Borgia!”
Fleming uncorks the secret inner torments of history's most notorious poisoner. Her best singing was sumptuous and long-lined, airy and ravishingly rich.”

  –San Jose Mercury News
Tenor Michael Fabiano sings "with both graceful lyricism and full-throated ardor."
“Tenor Michael Fabiano made a dashing company debut as Gennaro, breathing vivid life into the role's improbable conflicts and singing with both graceful lyricism and full-throated ardor. As his boon companion, Maffio Orsini, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong gave an energetic and vocally forthright performance, and both singers reached their heights with a vivid, superbly delivered account of their duet in the final act.”

  –San Francisco Chronicle
Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong "sings like a vocal giant.”
DeShong's “lowest notes have body and depth, the midrange is especially rich, and she propels her secure, full, and rounded highs with aplomb.”

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"Marvelous singing, first and foremost from soprano Renée Fleming."

  –San Jose Mercury News
Bass-baritone Vitalij Kowaljow gave “a thrillingly robust and commanding account” of Duke Alfonso.

  –San Francisco Chronicle
“Production’s execution is first-rate!”
"Fine singing, towering sets and outlandishly appealing costumes, as well as a robust chorus and a dazzlingly spot-on performance by the orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Frizza, a bel canto specialist in his company debut."

  –San Jose Mercury News


  • Fri 09/23/11 8:00pm

  • Mon 09/26/11 7:30pm *

  • Thu 09/29/11 7:30pm *

  • Sun 10/2/11 2:00pm *

  • Wed 10/5/11 7:30pm

  • Sat 10/8/11 8:00pm

  • Tue 10/11/11 8:00pm

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret/Taube Media Suite.


Company Sponsors John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn are proud to support this production. This production is made possible, in part, by The Thomas Tilton Production Fund. Ms. Fleming's appearance made possible by a gift to the Great Singers Fund by Joan and David Traitel.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.