History With A Toxic Twist: 'Lucrezia Borgia'

Nov 4, 2011
Originally published on November 4, 2011 8:32 am

When we think of opera's biggest stars and greatest hits, we tend to think of solo arias. But that overlooks another operatic goldmine: duets.

Over the years, there have been plenty of classic duet collaborations, resulting in legendary recordings and performances. Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti come to mind, singing the "Cherry Duet" from Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz. Going back a little further, there's Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill with "Au fond du temple saint," the famous duet from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers.

For this week's World of Opera, we've got another remarkable collaboration between two of today's greatest singers — a soprano and a tenor. But the "duet" they created is a bit unusual: It lasts for an entire opera, and only one of the two performers actually sings.

The soprano is Renee Fleming, taking on the unforgiving title role in a steamy drama by Gaetano Donizetti. The tenor is arguably one of the best of all time: Placido Domingo. But instead of joining Fleming onstage, Domingo is in the pit, conducting the Washington National Opera's production of Lucrezia Borgia.

Donizetti based his opera on a play by Victor Hugo, which in turn was based loosely on history. The historical Lucrezia Borgia was a noblewoman born in the late 15th century — a member of one of Italy's most powerful families. The Borgias included military leaders, dukes, two Popes and even a saint.

The real-life Lucrezia may well have been a pretty solid citizen. But over the years, her life and times have made for great theater — and the theater hasn't treated her so well, to say the least. There are explanations for that. She was married three times; the first one was annulled under shady circumstances. Her second husband was murdered by her brother. And Lucrezia's father was the Pope — Alexander VI — who was presumably unmarried at the time.

By now, Lucrezia is at least as familiar from the theater as from history books, and she has developed a reputation as one of history's great poisoners. The murderous version of Lucrezia Borgia is the one Hugo depicted in his grisly play, and Donizetti's opera follows suit, playing fast and loose with history for the sake of dramatic effect. Then again, historical operas do tend to have a little more pizazz, with a few extra poisonings thrown in for good measure.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents the Washington National Opera's production of Lucrezia Borgia from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Along with Renee Fleming, the cast also includes tenor Vittorio Grigolo as Lucrezia's estranged son, Gennaro; bass Ruggero Raimondi as her husband, Duke Alfonso; and mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich as Gennaro's companion, Maffio Orsini.

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