English National Opera's love affair with cinema continues with Mike Figgis's production of Lucrezia Borgia.
Famous for Leaving Las Vegas and Internal Affairs, and the "operatic" performances of Nic Cage and Richard Gere, the film director is out of sync with Donizetti's rhythms and unable to manipulate perspective with stagecraft. Presented with one of opera's most luridly embittered heroines, and the Freudian subtext of her near-romance with her estranged son, Gennaro, Figgis places Claire Rutter's Lucrezia in a sequence of gilded boxes (designer Es Devlin), relating her back-story in four videos.
The films move in loose parallel with the arc of the opera's characterisation of Lucrezia: first as a woman schooled in venality from infancy, then as a mother whose son is twice ripped from her breast. Figgis goes to town on the Borgia birthday orgies, replacing Donizetti's instrumental prelude with an ambient hum and a pack of slender beauties in Renaissance corsetry, snarling in simulated pleasure and pain at the end of a leash. Were Peter Greenaway to film a video for Kanye West, it might look like this. But were Kanye West to translate Felice Romani's libretto, he might baulk at rhyming "Dante" with "Chianti".
While Paul Daniel's translation apes Edwardian parlour song, the Italians talk dirty. The punishments – gang-rape by 39 men, gang-rape by 74 men, sfregia, or cutting of the face – meted out to insubordinate courtesans are detailed in documentary-style interviews. The tone is glossy – more MTV than art house, despite the tapestries and papal robes. If Lucrezia is the victim of sexual abuse, as Figgis suggests, is it necessary that she be such a hottie (Rutter is replaced by Katy Saunders in the films), or that the camera should linger quite so excitedly on her lips as she sucks her brother's finger? As to the gynaecological examination performed by masked nuns ...
The fourth and most beautifully filmed sequence relates more helpfully to Donizetti's Lucrezia, as Figgis re-creates the decorous mother-son incest of Venus and Cupid in Bron-zino's Allegory of Love and Lust and the anonymous Gabrielle d'Estrées et une de ses soeurs, where one sister pinches the nipple of the other to indicate illegitimate pregnancy. This exquisitely crafted diptych is, however, tangential to the florid pulse of the score: an anomalous pause before Donizetti's gothic portrayal of the poisoning of Gennaro's friends and the terrible tumble towards Lucrezia's final, self-lacerating aria. Where Donizetti wants to hurtle, Figgis stops and picks out a melody on a dusty piano.
So there we have it: an Italian-language film, an English-language opera, atmospheric noodling and a lot of dry ice. Better with a baton than he is with a pen, Daniel conducts a neat, well-ordered account of the score. There is nothing incendiary here but some lovely moments from clarinettist Anthony Lamb. Rutter's muscular coloratura, idiomatic phrasing and sweetly spun high notes are handsomely delivered, if cautiously paced, but with no movement direction, her characterisation is all in the voice. The image of the real Alfonso, Alastair Miles spits and thunders with authority, while Michael Fabiano is a virile, impulsive Gennaro, and Elizabeth DeShong makes an attractive debut as Orsini. Lesser characters stand with their hands by their sides, stranded. I don't doubt the sincerity of Figgis's intentions. But if he wants to direct opera, he might start with the colleges and touring companies, like Liam Steel, Stephen Barlow, Anneliese Miskimmon and other young directors that ENO has yet to employ.
Conductor Douglas Boyd has been lucky to serve his apprenticeship out of the spotlight, first as principal oboist with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, then as music director of Manchester Camerata. More than 20 years Boyd's junior, Gustavo Dudamel and his experience could hardly have been more different. The Dude was propelled to fame at the helm of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and now presides over one of the world's wealthiest orchestras. Yet both musicians ran into problems last weekend in Beethoven's and Mahler's Ninth Symphonies, one a defiant shout of ecstasy at the variety and intensity of human experience, the other a long groan of anguish at human frailty.
In the Bridgewater Hall, the problem was acoustic bleed, as the delicately staggered endings of Beethoven's chords (first the wind, then the strings) were diluted and blurred by the building. In the Barbican, the issue was the tonal shock of hearing the Los Angeles Philharmonic's big-boned, neon-bright sound in Mahler's death-shadowed, gas-lit score. Though Dudamel is a brilliant communicator of rhythmic nuance, the soundworld was first abrasive, then satiny, as though Samuel Barber had wandered in for the final bars of the Adagio and smeared the lens with Vaseline. As microphones were present at both performances, I look forward to the chance to reassess, but there's something to be said for dryness, acoustic and musical.
'Lucrezia Borgia' (0871 911 0200) to 25 Feb
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