Last Friday I saw the final dress of Lucrezia Borgia at the ENO - an interesting production, but one that ultimately I think doesn't work particularly well. The idea to bring in a director from the film industry to sex things up is a standard opera gimmick nowadays, and it seems that Mike Figgis was brought in for just such a purpose. He incorporated four short film sequences into the opera which try to provide the opera with a darker and more disturbing feel than is perhaps inherent in the libretto and score - we are presented with the depraved background of the Borgias (Lucrezia's rumoured incestual relationships with her father and brother), there are murders, sex scenes, writhing animalistic girls, and lots and lots of breasts. While these were mostly quite well done (with one exception - see below), there was too much of a disjunct between the naturalistic, action filled films and the opera itself; in fact Figgis hardly seemed to know what to do with the actual opera which lead to a very static Prologue and very little interaction between the characters throughout. For example, characters that hate each other and are telling each other so just sit down next to each other rather placidly before the end of the scene. Almost all of the arias are just delivered still - in short just very old fashioned and it made for a poor realisation of the drama. Claire Rutter's Lucrezia, in stark contrast with the Lucrezia in the films, is never sexy, which is perhaps the most critical discontinuity between the opera and the films and makes the films seem like an obvious ploy to sex the evening up, rather than putting a darkly sexual undertone to the whole production which was surely the intention. The confrontation scene was at least visually rather striking, and there was a nice touch later where two famous paintings were unwittingly recreated by characters (the feasting plotters arranged as Da Vinci's Last Supper was particularly effective). Not a complete failure then, and frustratingly so because one senses that it could have been very good.
Also for no good reason, in one of the films which fills in the background, her illegitimate child Gennaro is a terrible plastic model, replete with visible moulding lines and periodic mechanical spasms. Ridiculous.
Though acting was subtle to non existant, the singing was really excellent throughout, especially from the rising star tenor Michael Fabiano as Gennaro, just 26, who apart from a few slightly strained notes in the top showed off a fantastically developed voice, genuinely beautiful and of quite some power. But for me the absolute star was the mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Orsini - a truly gorgeous voice, beautifully even across the range, with the bottom so richly coloured and full that she sounded like a true contralto in parts. Apparently she sings the composer of Strauss' Ariadne too which is at the other end of the mezzo range. I just can't wait to hear more from her.
The Royal Opera House's beautiful production of Die Zauberflote made a return with a great cast, and was generally a success. This production really is a visual delight with costumes, props and sets all just about perfect - I'm sure most people have seen pictures of it already so there's not much need to comment. Jessica Pratt spuffed some notes in "Der Holle Rache", but a soprano friend reminded me that this was a morning dress rehearsal and I should give her a break. Actually it was about 1pm by the time she must have sung the notes, but we'll give her the benefit of the doubt, shall we. Kate Royal made a beautiful (vocally and physically) if slightly weakly characterised Pamina, and Joseph Kaiser as Tamino was vocally disappointing, but luckily Christopher Maltman's Papageno amply served as the linchpin of the production - very well sung indeed, well acted and genuinely funny. Diction from all was generally very good and most people were easy enough to understand, pronunciation ranging from good to excellent.
Another thing which has to be noted is the children in this production - all are unbelievably cute and add a real joyousness to so many scenes. Monostatos' cronies include a couple of bewigged kids which bestow an impish devilishness on his troupe. The little girl dancing around with the wild animals, and then the kids all jumping on the bed after the Pa...pa...pa... duet - all delightful touches and makes explicit the implicit celebration of human love and life that this opera offers.