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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood