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Lucrezia Borgia - English Touring Opera (17.03.2023)

When reading reviews, I feel it’s best to know that your reviewer is an honest person. So, I will hold my hands up before I begin and confess that I’ve only been to the opera on one occasion previously.

It’s not that I don’t have an admiration for the art-form, quite the opposite in fact, it’s simply that in a similar way to many of us, opera wasn’t something to which I was often exposed. I guess this is a long-winded way of letting you know that I approached this review with a large helping of humility, knowing full well that my view probably counts for very little. I guess you could probably look upon this review as that of an objective observer, rather than the critical eye of an expert.

But anyhow, now I’ve put myself in my place, what can I tell you? Well, first of all, before heading to the theatre, I carried out a bit of research into Lucrezia Borgia. It seems that Donizetti’s opera didn’t have the smoothest of beginnings. The writer Victor Hugo, whose play of 1833 the opera was based upon, obtained an injunction under copyright law to stop it being performed. From there, the libretto was rewritten and renamed Le rinegata (‘the renegade’ for those that want to know what it means without referring to Google translate). Presumably once Victor Hugo popped his clogs, they decided Lucrezia Borgia was a better title.

It’s a fairly paper-thin plot concerning love, companionship, and concealed identities. It’s an emotional rollercoaster though, and one which ends in tragedy. There’s a whole host of deaths in it, but disappointingly for the sake of drama, only one which plays out on stage.

Of course, I don’t suppose people are attending the opera for the stories. Not when there’s some incredible voices that can move you like nothing else. Frankly, they could have been singing about funny cat videos or reciting a recipe for apple strudel for all I cared, it was the way their performances sold every word to me that blew me away.

In this performance, we had soprano Katherine McIndoe stepping out from the ensemble to cover the title role due to illness. To my untrained ear, she appeared to suffer no nerves in stepping into what would have no doubt been a daunting role, giving us a beautiful, emotive, and at times surprisingly comedic performance.

The tragic and unwitting character of Gennaro was portrayed by tenor Thomas Elwin, who could clearly belt out his notes with the best of them, but it was the moments of restraint adding a tenderness to his performance that impressed me the most. There was also fantastic support from Katie Coventry, a mezzo-soprano who played Gennaro’s pal, Orsini. Alongside a gorgeous vocal performance, with some wonderful cascading notes in particular during the ‘party’ scene (which appeared to be set in a steam room), she also added a lithe, physical dimension to her performance.

I do love a villain though, and in Lucrezia Borgia we have the dastardly Alfonso, husband of Lucrezia. Alfonso believes Gennaro is a rival for his wife’s affections and seeks vengeance when the younger man insults Lucrezia. Aidan Edwards as Alfonso is absolutely perfect, in terms of both vocals and characterisation. His commanding physical presence helps with this, but it’s his booming bass baritone that grips you. It’s only a shame the character doesn’t feature more heavily in the production.

I’ve highlighted a few performers there, but from top to bottom, the entire company was exceptional, I guess as you’d expect from the English Touring Opera.

The sets were both dramatic and fairly simple in design, with the gates of the house of Borgia an imposing feature throughout. I enjoyed the flaming torches helping to light the set and create a feel of the back-streets of Venice. A gondola being wheeled on in the first Act helped too of course!

If, like me, you have almost no experience of watching an opera, you should be heartened by how accessible the performance was. There was a couple of screens displaying the English translation of the vocals which helped you to follow the narrative, but actually, the performers themselves displayed such skill in their acting through song that I felt I probably could have managed without referring to the screens to work out what was going on.

The English Touring Opera’s Spring tour continues until the end of May, and for my fellow East Anglians, you can catch them performing Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims alongside Lucrezia Borgia on consecutive nights at Cambridge Arts Theatre (13-15 April) and Snape Maltings Concert Hall (20-22 April).


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