Magazine article The Spectator

Deriding Donizetti

Magazine article The Spectator

Deriding Donizetti

Article excerpt

Lucrezia Borgia

English National Opera, in rep until 3 March

Die Zauberflote

Royal Opera House, in rep until 26 February

Someone should write an opera about a once-great opera company, now in artistically suicidal decline. A few decades ago it had great productions and performances of the masterpieces of the repertoire, but it has been scared by successive governments warning about elitism, the need for attracting new, young, opera-hating audiences, and so on. So it has hired a succession of 'directors' (adopting the language of cinema), who have never seen an opera, to stage established works and mount new ones, making them look as much as possible like the eternally running musicals it eyes enviously.

It makes sure to invite for first nights a large number of media people, who are amazed at how little what they see resembles anything in the plots they read in the programme, and realise that, far from being inaccessible, opera is a multimedia affair in which you can more or less ignore the music if you want to. This so far unwritten work would not require extensive creative gifts from its composer: it would alternate scenes of audience chatter - set in the foyer of the London Coliseum - with excerpts from various well-known operas, in progressively more daring and irrelevant productions, and would end in darkness and silence onstage, while the audience brayed on unnoticing.

English National Opera's new production of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia is directed by Mike Figgis, perhaps most famous for the movie Leaving Las Vegas. In an interview in the programme he says, 'To date, I've not bothered with opera because I was already engaging with the very thing opera offers' (I wonder how he knew? ). And he proves his point by telling his interviewer that he didn't realise that the trouser role of Orsini was a trouser role, and anyway the opera has only one female character, so let's do some gender-reassigning.

Figgis got interested in Lucrezia herself, the historical figure, and felt that Romani and Donizetti had hardly done her justice, so what more natural than to shoot four short movies and get the opera going with one of them, dispensing with the Overture, and distribute the other three through the action? Naturally, since the setting is Italy, the characters speak Italian, though in the opera they sing in English. Nor is there any resemblance between the characters in the movies and those onstage, either in appearance or in manner.

The movie characters can't leave one another alone, either from desire or aggression, while the ones in the opera simply stand and deliver: this is of course 'minimalism' and is extraordinarily like the universally derided old-style operatic non-acting. …

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