An opera virgin's view of Lucrezia Borgia

The ENO's production of Donizetti's melodrama is underwhelming rather than disappointing.

The English National Opera's latest wheeze is to let directors with a background in film have a crack at directing an opera. Amid a publicity hurricane, Mike Figgis's Lucrezia Borgia was released last week. I had never seen an opera before -- but then neither had Mike Figgis when he agreed to direct the ENO's latest production. Echoing this adventurous spirit of trying new things, I decided to go along and lose my cherry -- as many have done before, I'm sure -- to Lucrezia Borgia.

Lucrezia Borgia herself was an early modern femme fatale. Daughter of a Pope, with whom she allegedly had an incestuous relationship, she married three times, while also being accused of having an affair with her own brother. While this version of her life is almost certainly a fabrication, Donizetti's opera is based on this lurid fictional version and thus contains an appropriate mixture of mistaken identities, poisonings and cuckoldry, as Lucrezia almost falls in love with then poisons then cures her long-lost child. It seems a perfect fit for an inherently over-the-top medium such as opera.

The opening was promising. Figgis filmed a slick prologue of courtesans preparing themselves for a 16th century orgy. Pretty young things jabbered away in Italian, spreading rumours of Lucrezia's exploits. It was somewhat peculiar, then, when the singing began that the words were in English.

Opera does not lend itself to English. Even to my uncultured ear, the rhyming couplets seemed trite and often jarred, as if Paul Daniel -- the conductor and translator -- had simply copied and pasted the entire text of Donizetti's melodrama into Google Translate and set the result to music. Even more disconcertingly, the lyrics then appeared above the stage, giving the audience members a bong-eyed headache if they attempted to follow the plot without missing the action.

Well, "action". The staging seemed very static. Figgis's background in film and avant-garde performance art did not encourage him to be adventurous in the opera's composition. Aside from one scene in the second half set out in a pastiche of Leonardo's The Last Supper, Figgis seemed to follow the traditional route of bearded man and fat lady belting out numbers from either side of the stage.

The filmed cut-scenes injected pace to the performance and added some of the blood, smut and gore that litter the tale of Lucrezia Borgia. Life in Lucrezia's society gives the impression of being one long bunga bunga party. It was a time when being elected pope was a licence for the type of debauched lifestyle that would make Berlusconi blush. The delicacies of disguising Lucrezia's lack of virginity -- when she was three months pregnant -- is dealt with in an amusing, if mildly disturbing, manner involving masked nuns, early modern gynaecology and Pope Alexander VI.

Back on stage, however, the whole production seemed flat. Even so, the singing left an impression, even if the stagecraft did not. Perhaps I'm too easily pleased. After all, my experience of opera extends little further than Paul Pott's victory in Britain's Got Talent and the soundtrack of football highlights from Italia '90. Recorded performances simply don't convey what it is like to hear opera live. Claire Rutter's performance as Lucrezia was particularly pleasing.

I'm sure the ENO wanted something new and different when they employed Figgis. With the cut scenes, they got it. Rutter's old, ground-down Lucrezia, contrasted well with the sprightly young thing in Figgis's prologues. But, as a whole, there seemed to be little energy or adventure in the performance. Far more qualified critics than I have attacked the production. I, however, left feeling slightly underwhelmed, rather than disappointed. A life like Lucrezia Borgia's deserves more.

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times