Lucrezia Borgia is a romantic work with major dramatic effects and hints of verism, and occupies a special place among Donizetti's wealth of opera works. This powerful and violent woman is the Italian composer's Salome, according to Julian Reynolds, who will work once again with Guy Joosten after their beautiful production of Lucia di Lammermoor a few seasons ago in the same venue – Cirque Royal. This venue is a true challenge for the conductor given the size of the orchestra, the number of soloists and the theatre's distinctive features.
Lucrezia Borgia is not the most popular work by Donizetti. What makes it special according to you?
I am convinced that Lucrezia Borgia represents a new beginning for Donizetti, as well as for Italian opera in general. This work was highly successful when it premiered, being performed thirty-three times at La Scala in Milan during the first year. The critics, however, were divided, as it broke with certain well-established habits and was quite daring in several respects. Firstly, its general concept is based on an early verist element: a shocking subject. Even librettist Felice Romani was not at ease with the fact that the daughter of a pope was a character in an opera, as well as her illegitimate son. The opera nevertheless benefitted from the support of the public and singers, who were especially drawn to a role such as that of Lucrezia. The size of the cast is the second reason which explains why Lucrezia was so revolutionary and why it did not quickly earn a place in the repertoire. The work is full of interesting characters, including secondary roles such as Orsini and Rustighello, whom Donizetti and Romani took care to develop individually. It is said that in order to stage Il Trovatore, one must have the five best singers in the world; in the case of Lucrezia, the problem is much the same, except that one must find the twelve best singers in the world!
You said that Lucrezia Borgia represents a new start for Donizetti. Can you explain?
Lucrezia Borgia (1833) was written two years before Lucia di Lammermoor, when Donizetti was in the middle of his artistic life. It represented an important stage in his career: from that moment on, Donizetti chose subjects which inspired a new way of composing. He broke with Rossini's formal models, thus following an evolution which had begun with Anna Bolena. Furthermore, Lucrezia Borgia clearly has a romantic dimension. This appears in the pure expressive singing, in perfect keeping with the text, in which the ornamentation fully serves the dramatic expression. Lucrezia's aria M’odi… ah m’odi is a wonderful example – it is the largo from the finale of the second act, when she begs Gennaro to take the antidote. The expressiveness is such that the musical form goes totally unnoticed; everything unfolds naturally, following the plot's development on stage. Donizetti took a big step forward and distanced himself from the composer he was at the beginning of his career. The finale of the first act provides us with another eloquent example: Alfonso d’Este – the embodiment of evil – speaks for a long time to Gennaro with great self-control in order to lead him into a trap, which he succeeds in doing when he utters the word 'guai' (beware). The group changes into a trio before becoming a duo once again. Here, Donizetti composed a grande scena with a very free structure. This finale is not a sequence of the traditional ingredients of recitative, cantilena and cabaletta. It is just a long piece of freely composed drama. It was quite new that Donizetti was able to explore great structures such as this with so much freedom, while maintaining the dramatic tension without undermining the musical interest.
Can we conclude that Donizetti heralds Verdi in this work?
Yes. Verdi was in the middle of his studies the year Lucrezia Borgia premiered, and he certainly saw it. Many small echoes of it may be found in his work. One might think that the calm and courteous attitude of Alfonso when he questions Gennaro at the beginning of the first finale, reappears in the way in which Verdi presents Otello's questioning of Desdemona. Donizetti had the audacity to make use of unusual themes and subjects, which opened new horizons for him from a romantic and dramatic point of view. A new type of drama was born.
How did singers react at the time?
They had a positive reaction. Donizetti was not seeking a naturalist style, as he was very classical in his vocal tastes. In this respect, he was in keeping with the tradition of Rossini: the beauty of singing prevailed. But he encountered problems at another level. The singers at the time had very strong personalities and enormous charisma. This was the case in particular with Henriette Méric-Lalande, the prima donna who created the role of Lucrezia. One of the key moments in the work is Lucrezia's entrance, which in any case caused a dramatic turn of events. The plot requires the protagonist to be veiled – she must not be recognised because everyone knows what she has done – but Lalande refused outright to make her entrance wearing a veil, fearing that her fans would not recognise her. She also demanded the addition of an aria with cabaletta, which was not originally intended by Romani and Donizetti. In the end, we are indebted to her for a fantastic cabaletta, which is now an integral part of the work. And as an aside, Lalande's fee was nine times higher than that of the composer!
How did Donizetti imagine the character of Lucrezia?
Romani and Donizetti's idea of her was totally different from that of Victor Hugo. The story of the Borgia family – with everything surrounding it – had a different impact in France than it did in Italy, where it was really a part of cultural heritage. Donizetti added the terrible inner conflict which tore Lucrezia apart. We must feel compassion for her because destiny decided that she would be born Lucrezia Borgia. The crimes – which from a historical point of view must not be attributed to her but are nevertheless still associated with her – were in a way part of the inescapable destiny of all Borgias. Lucrezia was therefore marked by a sort of original sin. In Italian culture, she is often associated with the image of Mary Magdalene, the sinner. The death of her son Gennaro – who realises at the last moment that he is her son – is clearly a religious reference: the tears of the Madonna. Romani and Donizetti therefore enriched the story of Lucrezia with religious connotations. They added a dimension, as Guy Joosten pointed out: it is not just a cruel story; the protagonist experiences a sort of transcendence, like Norma or Tosca for example.
What is the role of the orchestra in this work? Is it as important as in Lucia?
Yes, the orchestra is just as important as in Lucia di Lammermoor and is often used in a very interesting way. In comparison with Lucia, this score includes more examples of dance music off stage and strong contrasts in the instrumentation. Lucrezia proves that Donizetti could write marvellously for the orchestra and create great dramatic effects. Note that for this opera, he modified the arrangement of the orchestra: for the first time, the leaders of the string section were placed in a semicircle in the front as is done today. Donizetti's experimental instrumentation led to this change in the arrangement. For our ears, these novelties are no longer noticed, but at the time they were revolutionary.
With the special arrangement of the orchestra for your production of Lucia di Lammermoor, you experimented with new acoustic possibilities at Cirque Royal. Are you following the same lines for Lucrezia Borgia?
I don't want to reveal too much, but because Cirque Royal represents such a different space than La Monnaie, we have had to make several decisions concerning the location of the orchestra, the way to tell the story, the places in which the action takes place, etc. In this space, it is extremely difficult to put each element in the right place. One or two metres often make the difference. The rehearsals are a sort of work in progress during which we try to find the best option. In any case, it will be extremely exhilarating for both the singers and the audience to be so close to each other without being separated by the orchestra. Cirque Royal allows us – in the large ensembles for example – to concentrate on the text and the emotions of each character, more than a traditional stage does. It is exciting to work this way, all the more so in the case of an opera like Lucrezia Borgia. While great emotional power emanates from Lucia di Lammermoor, Lucrezia is more like a big punch in the gut: it is a much more violent and physical work. Lucrezia Borgia is Donizetti's Salome.
Interview by Reinder Pols