La Monnaie at the Cirque Royal, Brussels, Sunday March 3 2013
Conductor: Julian Reynolds. Production: Guy Joosten. Sets: Johannes Leiacker. Costumes: Jorge Jara. Lighting: Manfred Voss. Don Alfonso, Duca di Ferrara: Paul Gay. Donna Lucrezia Borgia: Elena Mosuc. Gennaro: Charles Castronovo. Maffio Orsini: Silvia Tro Santafé. Jeppo Liverotto: Roberto Covatta. Don Apostolo Gazella: Tijl Faveyts. Ascanio Petrucci: Jean-Luc Ballestra. Gubetta: Jean Teitgen. Rustighello: Alexander Kravets. Astolfo: Justin Hopkins. Oloferno Vitellozzo: Stefan Cifolelli. Usciere: Alain-Pierre Wingelinckx. Un coppiere: Gerard Lavalle. La Monnaie orchestra and chorus.
I’ve decided this report will be truffled, as the French say (i.e. like a goose liver or white pudding) with quotations. Though I’ve said before it’s probably not pukka to quote yourself, it saves time; so I started out (you’ll soon see why) going back over my recent write-ups from Brussels, looking for things to copy and paste. Then, perusing some excellent web sites, I noted that one writer at least thought what I thought on Sunday (perhaps that was why I found his site excellent), so I decided to carry on quoting…
Castronovo was, as I said, announced sick, so he didn’t ring out as he might, but he certainly still had a magnificent timbre (or timber, as they say on Amazon) and put in a performance that was “more acceptable than many [...] Silvia Tro Santafé,” continues ConcertoNet, “in the breeches role of Orsini, showed herself on sparkling form.” Her voice is agile, surprisingly powerful (she’s a diminutive figure) and has an interesting grain. And I’d agree with the author that Paul Gay was less impressive: more audible than at the Bastille, but “monolithic” and, I thought, verging on bluster.
The supporting cast included one or two very interesting voices, but I lost track of who was who. The orchestra wasn’t at its best, perhaps because of the odd set-up to the side of the circus arena. The playing was undisciplined, with one prominent early entry. But all round this should have been an excellent afternoon of Donizetti, if such a thing exists, and Elena Mosuc certainly went out in a blaze of glory: this was, we were told in the programme notes, the original 1833 version, which ends with Lucrezia’s dramatic final scene.
I’m not wholly decided as to why, apart from that final scene, I was bored. Have I now reached a stage where I can no more stand Donizetti, even well sung, than Bellini? In which case the production was a contributing factor. Or was it almost entirely the fault of the production, which, though elaborate, wasn’t carried off with enough conviction (“a bit short of inspiration and lacking magic,” said Forum Opéra) to work?
Manon's name was written, on a bar, in neon; here it was Borgia over the red curtains, repeated in luminous Gothic characters on the catwalk. Both Bs were shot out by Gennaro with a pistol.
As in Traviata (me again) “The bored, idle, yobbish rich, all in black […] dinner jackets with open-necked shirts, plus one with a leg mysteriously in plaster - mooch around in a drunken stupor”. The broken leg, plus, here, broken arm, broken ribs or stiff neck implied by the use of a variety of orthopaedic accoutrements, are to me a new and, as I said, mysterious directorial tic. I will follow it with interest.
As Forum Opéra puts it: "Joosten does not avoid certain juvenile clichés and provocations to no obvious point: neither the young nuns in scanty underwear in the prologue nor the soubrettes horse-whipped S&M style in act two – decidedly a banal event at La Monnaie this season – are of any use in clarifying the plot or bringing about the sense of fright that’s needed”. Or, as ConcertoNet.com puts it: “The show does not avoid the tics that are a feature of today's opera stage: how many times a year must the assiduous spectator witness scenes of inebriation in which the drunkards stagger about, bottle in hand, or orgies? Decidedly, naked women are a Leitmotiv at La Monnaie this season”.
Take your pick.
And back to me: “Simulated sex by singers on the opera stage is singularly unconvincing and ultimately, with rare exceptions, just corny or, to put it the Gallic way as the man behind me did, ‘conventionnel dans sa provocation’”. The same goes for simulated violence and drunkenness.
It’s true that, in this plot, the young noblemen party a lot. The production gave them three kinds of fancy dress: in Venice, pigs’ masks and ecclesiastical accessories (mitres, stoles and so on), hence the nuns (in red high heels and not much else under their robes); in Ferrara, first clowns’ faces then, for the party they would all die at, poisoned, cassocks (or is it hassocks?) and death masks. The count’s henchman were dressed for A Clockwork Orange, swaggering round, in that half-hearted way chorus members do, in bowler hats, red noses, red gloves and codpieces and wielding foam cricket bats; the girls who brought in the fateful/fatal Borgia wine looked like big-haired witches in long robes, until the latter fell off and they bared their bosoms (again) to be ridden by the gents – or was it the girls who sat astride the men, flicking at them feebly with riding crops? I don’t remember.
Whatever. It was, as Sid the Sexist might have said if he had taken out a Sunday matinee subscription, “Tits oot for the lads” for the third time running at La Monnaie. to equally little effect. The ideas in this production weren’t intrinsically bad, but the directing wasn’t strong enough to get the cast to pull it off convincingly: it wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t shocking, it wasn’t frightening. With such a good cast, I’m afraid this Lucrezia might have been a better bet in concert.
Opera Cake has also reviewed this.