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.
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.