After Lucia di Lammermoor, Belgian stage director Guy Joosten is back at Cirque Royal with a new production of Lucrezia Borgia, also by Donizetti. There are many reasons for his enthusiasm about this project. Firstly, there is the story of an exceptional woman who left a mark on the Renaissance – a great seductress whose name alone aroused feelings of desire and fear, and who was marked by deep inner wounds which she hid from the men around her. Secondly, this theatre has a very special spatial configuration which requires specific stage and theatrical solutions. Finally, Donizetti's music creates a unique atmosphere surrounding this tragedy of love and murder.
Not so long ago, you staged Lucia di Lammermoor, and today you are staging Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. What fascinates you so much about belcanto?
Admittedly, not all belcanto operas have a high quality libretto, but certain librettos have true dramatic value and are not overloaded with superfluous repetitions which serve no purpose other than to exhibit vocal virtuosity. Lucia di Lammermoor fits into this category and so does Lucrezia Borgia – and we could also include Maria Stuarda. Furthermore, Lucrezia Borgia is based on a historical episode from a period which fascinates me, namely the Italian Renaissance. Such a work invites one naturally to rummage around in the culture of this period. And, last but not least, there is a fascination with the main character who – over time – has been subject to all sorts of interpretations and clarifications. It interests me greatly to string together these interpretations and to produce my own vision.
Victor Hugo hides behind Felice Romani's libretto for Lucrezia Borgia. Does this not automatically guarantee quality?
Victor Hugo is the author of the French play which Felice Romani used as a basis for his work. It is an interesting work, but Lucrezia – the main character – seems to me to be personified in a rather one-sided way. Donizetti's music gives her a more profound dimension. Victor Hugo's depiction of this woman – who is presented as a vile being from a vile lineage – is more detailed in Donizetti's music and libretto. In this sense, the opera is historically more accurate than Hugo's play. Lucrezia is from a disparaged lineage – the Borgia family – and it is clear that the hands of many members of this family were stained with blood, such as Lucrezia's older brother who had crossed Italy and its outskirts at the head of a barbarian army. But I find that the character is depicted with more detail in the opera. Victor Hugo wrote his play shortly after the revolution of 1830 in Paris and was obviously strongly influenced by the context of the time: those in power were untrustworthy by definition. But I have to interpret the play today. And when I compare Hugo's novel with the libretto for this opera, the libretto's complex characterisation of Lucrezia raises more questions.
In his preface, Victor Hugo described Lucrezia Borgia as a mixture of moral abjectness, physical beauty, royal dignity and maternal love. In short, a monster with a mother's heart. After Salomé, Elektra and Lucia, is Lucrezia a new face in our gallery of portraits of powerful women?
Yes, indeed. She is a shrew with a certain dose of humanity – an attractive and fascinating combination. As a cruel shrew, we see her on two occasions involved in a plot in which – without knowing – the life of her own son is put at risk. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the context: this woman was forced by her marriage to be separated from her illegitimate child and to suppress her maternal love. We do not know if the character of Gennaro really refers to Lucrezia Borgia's illegitimate child attested by history, but we know very well that she had an illegitimate child and that in her marriage contract it was clearly stipulated that she had to stay away from him. Isn't that brutal? I also find that in this opera, her maternal love is expressed very subtly. It is an opera with many misunderstandings and secrets: Lucrezia's love for her son Gennaro, Gennaro's love for the stranger who later turned out to be his mother, and Orsini's love for Gennaro are all feelings which must remain suppressed. And there are also the resulting misunderstandings: Alfonso who wrongly believes that he knows who his wife's lover is, and Lucrezia who almost assassinated her son. Due to the cocktail of secrets and misunderstandings, we cannot describe her only as an evil being.
You apparently really like her.
I do really like the way in which – in the historical context of the court of Ferrare with its strict rules, a violent husband and adultery – Lucrezia wanted to express her maternal instinct. It is sad to see how she is humiliated at the end of the prologue, when she is suddenly confronted with the vision of the victims of her acts – not as a mother, but in her political role linked to power – and it is poignant to see her walking a tightrope, trying to maintain a balance between these two extremes. In the second part, she plays a woman in power whose name is tarnished, and when she wants to take responsibility for the consequences, she is once again confronted with her role of mother. She must always go from one to the other, and it is not surprising that she sometimes gets lost in this charade.
Donizetti and Hugo's stories take place in Venice and Ferrare, around 1505. Where and when does the story take place for you?
I don't want to tell too much about this for now, but I can say that we have tried to come up with a symbolic context for the central role played by Lucrezia in the different themes and issues which we have just discussed. It is an important aspect. And the celebrations keep the play lively. Given the architecture of Cirque Royal, we did not try to achieve a historisation or concretisation of time and place, but rather an abstract and symbolic solution which makes the link between these two main points.
With Lucia, you revealed new possibilities offered by Cirque Royal. Will you continue along these same lines with Lucrezia Borgia?
This is my fourth production at Cirque Royal and it is not easy to fill this big space once again in an appropriate manner. With my past experiences – definitely Lucia – I learned how important it is to allow the audience to see the events unfold from up close. We want the audience to be able to feel the play's pulse. I find that to be very important when one leaves the architecture of classical theatre, and I also feel that one must allow new dimensions to take shape in an optimal way. But we are doing this differently than with Lucia. A different context requires a different scenography.
Interview by Reinder Pols