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.