History With A Toxic Twist: 'Lucrezia Borgia'

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Soprano Renee Fleming leads this WNO production of 'Lucrezia Borgia.' i i

Soprano Renee Fleming leads this WNO production of 'Lucrezia Borgia.' Karin Cooper/courtesy of Washington National Opera hide caption

itoggle caption Karin Cooper/courtesy of Washington National Opera
Soprano Renee Fleming leads this WNO production of 'Lucrezia Borgia.'

Soprano Renee Fleming leads this WNO production of 'Lucrezia Borgia.'

Karin Cooper/courtesy of Washington National Opera

When we think of opera's biggest stars and greatest hits, we tend to think of solo arias. But that overlooks another operatic goldmine: duets.

Over the years, there have been plenty of classic duet collaborations, resulting in legendary recordings and performances. Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti come to mind, singing the "Cherry Duet" from Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz. Going back a little further, there's Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill with "Au fond du temple saint," the famous duet from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers.

For this week's World of Opera, we've got another remarkable collaboration between two of today's greatest singers — a soprano and a tenor. But the "duet" they created is a bit unusual: It lasts for an entire opera, and only one of the two performers actually sings.

The soprano is Renee Fleming, taking on the unforgiving title role in a steamy drama by Gaetano Donizetti. The tenor is arguably one of the best of all time: Placido Domingo. But instead of joining Fleming onstage, Domingo is in the pit, conducting the Washington National Opera's production of Lucrezia Borgia.

Donizetti based his opera on a play by Victor Hugo, which in turn was based loosely on history. The historical Lucrezia Borgia was a noblewoman born in the late 15th century — a member of one of Italy's most powerful families. The Borgias included military leaders, dukes, two Popes and even a saint.

The real-life Lucrezia may well have been a pretty solid citizen. But over the years, her life and times have made for great theater — and the theater hasn't treated her so well, to say the least. There are explanations for that. She was married three times; the first one was annulled under shady circumstances. Her second husband was murdered by her brother. And Lucrezia's father was the Pope — Alexander VI — who was presumably unmarried at the time.

By now, Lucrezia is at least as familiar from the theater as from history books, and she has developed a reputation as one of history's great poisoners. The murderous version of Lucrezia Borgia is the one Hugo depicted in his grisly play, and Donizetti's opera follows suit, playing fast and loose with history for the sake of dramatic effect. Then again, historical operas do tend to have a little more pizazz, with a few extra poisonings thrown in for good measure.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents the Washington National Opera's production of Lucrezia Borgia from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Along with Renee Fleming, the cast also includes tenor Vittorio Grigolo as Lucrezia's estranged son, Gennaro; bass Ruggero Raimondi as her husband, Duke Alfonso; and mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich as Gennaro's companion, Maffio Orsini.

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The Story Of 'Lucrezia Borgia'

As the opera's extended PROLOGUE begins, a young man named Gennaro has returned from Venice with a group of friends. When they leave him alone, Gennaro falls asleep on a bench.

A masked woman appears. It's Lucrezia Borgia, who is already notorious. She's been married three times, and most people figure she murdered her first two husbands — along with any number of her enemies. Lucrezia recognizes the sleeping Gennaro as her son who was separated from her many years ago.

When Gennaro wakes up, he's alone with Lucrezia. He has no idea who this masked woman is. The two sing a moving duet, with Gennaro expressing love for the mother who was forced to give him up. Lucrezia sympathizes, but keeps her identity secret.

But when Gennaro's friends return, they rip off the mask and reveal his new acquaintance as the infamous Lucrezia. Many of them have lost relatives at her hands, including a young man named Maffio Orsini, one of Gennaro's closest friends. Orsini says Lucrezia poisoned his brother. The others tell Gennaro more stories about Lucrezia's murderous tendencies. He's appalled, and he turns Lucrezia away — not knowing that he's rejecting his own mother.

WHO'S WHO

Renee Fleming ... Lucrezia Borgia
Vittorio Grigolo ............. Gennaro
Kate Aldrich ........... Maffio Orsini
Ruggero Raimondi ..... Alfonso
Grigory Soloviov ..... Gazella
Oleksandr Pushniak .... Petrucci
Jesus Hernandez .... Liverotto
Jose Ortega ....... Vitellozo
Robert Cantrell .... Gubetta
Yingxi Zhang .... Rustighello
David B. Morris ..... Astolfo

Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Placido Domingo, conductor

ACT ONE begins outside the Borgia palace, in Ferrara. Lucrezia's current husband, Duke Alfonso, has noticed her taking an unusual interest in Gennaro. He doesn't know that the young man is Lucrezia's long-lost son. Instead, Alfonso assumes the two are lovers.

Before long, Gennaro and his friends show up looking for a good time. They spot the elaborate Borgia crest near the gates to the palace. Gennaro takes his sword and cuts the "B" off the crest, turning "Borgia" into "orgia" — which translates just how you'd expect. The Duke promptly has Gennaro arrested.

When Lucrezia comes home and learns that someone has desecrated her family's crest, she's outraged. Without knowing exactly who did it, she orders the culprit to be killed. That's a no-brainer for Alfonso, who immediately agrees with her decision. He thinks she's just ordered the death of her lover.

When Gennaro is led in and Lucrezia realizes that she's just condemned her own son, it seems she has little choice but to watch him die. But the Duke allows Lucrezia to determine the manner of Gennaro's death. She orders him to drink poisoned wine, and without much choice, Gennaro drinks from goblet Lucrezia gives him. Then the Duke generously leaves the two alone for what he assumes will be Gennaro's slow and painful death.

But when it comes to poisoning, Lucrezia is a real pro. She has an antidote to the poison and gives it to Gennaro. When he recovers, Lucrezia tells him he'd better leave town in a hurry. But she still doesn't reveal that she's actually his mother.

As ACT TWO begins, Gennaro is making his escape when he runs into his friend, Orsini. The two young men swear their eternal friendship and love — and Gennaro can't bring himself to leave. Unwisely, instead of skipping town, he and Orsini head for a party at the home of a local princess.

When they arrive, Orsini gets things rolling with a drinking song. Everyone's having a great time when they hear a somber sound from outside — penitent monks are singing a dirge. The party-goers think that's a bad omen, and decide it's time to wrap things up. But the doors suddenly open, and in walks Lucrezia.

She says that someone in the crowded room has desecrated her family crest. And, not knowing exactly who it was, she decided to make them all pay — and poisoned their wine. They've all just taken their final drink. But as Lucrezia is enjoying her toxic revenge, she sees Gennaro in the crowd. She thought he had left town — that she had saved him. Now she discovers that she's poisoned him instead.

As the others begin to collapse in agony, Lucrezia takes Gennaro aside and again offers him an antidote. This time, he refuses it. As a last resort, she finally tells him that she is his mother. But Gennaro says that having her for a mother is all the more reason to die. He does, and after a final bravura scene, Lucrezia falls onto his corpse in a dead faint.

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