Victor Hugo wrote Lucrèce Borgia in 1833, a year after Le Roi s’amuse, both melodramatic plays about the unintended murder of a child by their parent. While the latter became immortalised in the operatic canon as Rigoletto, still performed hundreds of times every year, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia hardly ever emerges from obscurity. With a new production by Eloise Lally, English Touring Opera is making the case for Donizetti’s piece to become better known.

Paula Sides (Lucrezia) and Aidan Edwards (Alfonso)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The drama is convincing in every scene and highly potent in many of them. In the Prologue, when Maffio Orsini and his friends confront Lucrezia with her past crimes (generally murder by poisoning) the atmosphere is electric. When Duke Alfonso, Lucrezia’s husband, plots the murder of Gennaro, whom he believes to be her lover but is in fact her son, the dialogue between the Duke and his oleaginous aide Rustighello is riveting. The standoff between Rustighello and Lucrezia’s servant Astolfo is replete with menace. Lucrezia’s attempts to wheedle Alfonso into commuting the death sentence on Gennaro that she has herself demanded are compellingly characterised. The Act 2 brindisi is a superb alternation of carefree cheer and off-stage spookiness. One can only be impressed by the purposeful way in which everyone moves around the stage and acts their role.

Thomas Elwin (Gennaro) and Paula Sides (Lucrezia)
© Richard Hubert Smith

No one’s going to pretend that Lucrezia Borgia’s music approaches the outpouring of melodic brilliance in Rigoletto, but it contains plenty to enjoy, both in terms of bel canto and of music reinforcing the drama. Vocally, in this production, the baddies get the best of it. What is required from Donizettian singing is effortlessness and a certain swagger, the feeling that beautifully turned phrases are coming out naturally, whatever the register. As Duke Alfonso, Aidan Edwards delivered that swagger with aplomb, a bass voice that was powerful and elegant even as it was filled with villainous venom. His partnership with the easy tenor of Matthew McKinney was to be relished musically as much as it was dramatically.

Centre: Matthew McKinney (Rustighello) and Jerome Knox (Astolfo)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Edwards definitely won the battle of the entrance arias, potently announcing his vengefulness in “Vieni: la mia vendetta”. Neither Paula Sides in the title role nor Thomas Elwin as Gennaro started confidently. Sides warmed up relatively quickly in her “Come è bello” as she gazes at the beauty of her child, to reveal a soprano voice with a good blend of agility, clarity, pleasant timbre and a fair degree of heft when called for – all of which makes the role of Lucrezia a good fit for her. Elwin took longer to warm up: there is a lovely tenor sound in there but it felt covered for too much of the early part of the opera. By the closing duet, both were on full form. Katie Coventry excelled in the trouser role of Orsini, oozing boyish charm and the carefree swagger required of the role, with perfect legato in the cascade of notes that is the brindisi.

The brindisi
© Richard Hubert Smith

Gerry Cornelius gave us fairly pacy tempi which worked well, as did the sound of the period instruments of The Old Street Band, which combined well with the singers to provide clarity and balance, except in some of the ensemble numbers where the volume was let rip too far and the voices were covered. Aficionados may mourn the loss of the closing showstopping cabaletta “Era desso il figlio mio”, but Cornelius and Lally’s decision to drop it has good precedent, since Donizetti himself never really wanted to include it and cut it when he could in 1840. 

Katie Coventry (Orsini) and Thomas Elwin (Gennaro)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The designs worked well. Adam Wiltshire’s costumes gave plenty of cues to the Renaissance setting without attempting to turn the piece into a sumptuous costume drama. His sets could have done with brighter lighting; but they were straightforward, just enough to provide some visual interest and place the setting, never diverting attention from the main point of the production – the intensely personal dramas unfolding onstage.

This wasn’t first night perfection; there was the odd staging clunk, horn flub, mistimed gesture or wrong surtitle translation. But these are readily forgiven in the context of an evening of solid musical performances, consistently excellent acting and highly compelling drama. Case closed. I’m hoping to see Lucrezia Borgia return to us often.

English Touring Opera's Lucrezia Borgia tours venues around the UK until 26th May. Click here for listings.