Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Opera Wednesday

Lucrezia Borgia was a real person, as well as an opera. She lived from 1480 to 1519, and was the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI (don't ask). Lucrezia, like the rest of the Borgia clan, has a wicked reputation. We don't know a lot about the real Lucrezia, but what we do know is fairly sordid (as one might expect if one is the illegitimate daughter of a pope.  Her life story is full of rumors of incest, poison and murder, and it's become part of the pop culture - even Mr. Peabody and Sherman made a trip to Italy to visit her, where she was suspected of attempting to poison her husband. (She wasn't really bad, though - she just couldn't help herself).

At that, it's likely that the real Lucrezia couldn't hold a candle to the operatic one.  The opera Lucrezia Borgia was composed by Donizetti and premiered in 1833, and is a magnificent example of the bel canto style - one reason why it's become a showpiece for sopranos from Sutherland to CaballĂ© to Fleming. The opera heavily plays upon, and even embellishes, Lucrezia's infamous reputation. In the climax final act of Lucrezia Borgia, Lucrezia, in revenge for past insults, fatally poisons six men - including, unintentionally, her own son Gennaro (whom she had thought had already fled the city).* Horrified at the thought of murdering her own flesh and blood, Lucrezia begs Gennaro to take the antidote, but he refuses, choosing instead to die with his five friends. Devistated at her accidental act of filicide, Lucrezia herself crumples to the ground, dead, as the curtain falls.

*Gennaro, it should be noted, didn't know that Lucrezia was his mother. It's a convoluted plot. But then again, it's an opera. What do you expect?

The body count in this opera is truly appalling, but there's nothing appalling about this performance by the magnificent Joan Sutherland in the title role. This clip of the final scene comes from a 1972 TV production - not sure what show, although offhand I'd guess it's either the Bell Telephone Hour or a program from England.  Though it's not stated, the conductor might well be her husband, Richard Bonynge

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