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.

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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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