At ENO and on Sky TV: Lucrezia Borgia

ENO pulled out all the stops, short of hiring an opera director, for this one: World’s first 3D opera, lavish seductive films between acts, sultry sets and, perhaps most surprisingly, some opera singers. It got the Coliseum some attention on the arts pages, gave Sky some decent PR as a cultural destination but on the night I was in attendance didn’t actually sell out the theatre. Having watched the (standard definition) telecast again last night I can also confirm that this was made for TV at its finest and for all the passion of the cast the saps in the audience were left short changed in comparison.

Let’s get the gimmicks out of the way. I don’t own a 3D TV and I’m willing to bet the number of people who actually saw this on Sky 3D is in single figures. That’s not to say it’s not worth doing just that the publicity impact will be much higher than it actually deserves. The other gimmick shared by audience and TV viewers is the films that introduce the action. Figgis has clearly given these his full attention and uses them both as straightforward titillation and to deepen the psychology of the opera. In the former aim it’s a success – Figgis has an eye for the erotic and whilst it jars in the Coliseum it all looks as it should – but in the latter it’s so much padding. The justifications run only to Lucrezia herself – her actions can be excused by her troubled and troubling upbringing and the violence that surrounds her. But there is such little subtlety here that all it does is pass the monster tag on to the other members of the family – the brutish men remain just thugs – and so it seems awkward and forced.

The music and performances were – to my decidedly untrained ear – excellent. I’m a sucker for surging moments and the heartbreak of the operatic moment. Lucrezia Borgia has it all in spades including a final, fatal reunion between mother and the son she abandoned. Michael Fabiano as Gerrano and Claire Rutter as his long-lost mother the monster Lucrezia herself share that final moment and it is so magnificent that any irritations from the rest of the production are completely lost. It is pure opera. The rest of the cast all sing well and the story bounces along merrily. It’s just a shame that – in the theatre at least – there’s so little happening.

When people sing they stand still and boom to the auditorium. The sets look lovely but are just ‘there’. Compared to the thinking (however misguided) that’s gone into the films it all looks a little lacklustre. It’s to the cast’s credit that they shine so well against such mundanity. But then I saw it on TV …

Now, Sky have clearly spent money but the camera is restless so whilst the staging is static the relayed presentation is not. This is a world away from the fixed camera approach of many opera transmissions. This has been properly directed and it is genuinely exciting. The filmed interludes still jar somewhat but even they cease to be completely ridiculous. I hate to say that it’s all be been developed just to suit Sky but the outcome certainly works better on the screen than the stage.

I would love for there to be more accessible opera on TV and quality relays like this are clearly a way to achieve that. But I can’t help but feel that what takes place in the theatre needs to be of the highest quality and on this occasion – singers and music aside – that was not the case.


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