The ENO's production of Donizetti's "melodrama in a prologue and two acts" Lucrezia Borgia is notable for two reasons. Firstly, it's a new production of an opera by a major bel canto composer, but one that isn't performed all that often. Secondly, it's the operatic debut of acclaimed film director Mike Figgis.

Claire Rutter as Lucrezia and Alastair Miles as Alphonso, © Stephen Cummisky, ENO
Claire Rutter as Lucrezia and Alastair Miles as Alphonso,
© Stephen Cummisky, ENO

The historical Lucrezia is best known as a serial poisoner of extreme beauty, who had a string of political marriages as well as a string of lovers which may or may not have included her father and brother. Reading his programme notes, it's clear that Figgis became thoroughly consumed by the story and was unable to keep his hands off the camera. In place of the overture, therefore, we were shown a short film dramatising some of the historical background, with further episodes shown before each act.

The use of film in this context will be controversial. It was pretty salacious stuff, filmed in Italian art-house style and designed both to shock and titillate. It was also a reasonably accurate depiction of historical events - or at least, of the stories that were told about the Borgia family at the time. It worked for me: I thought it was very well filmed and provided a level of darkness and menace that is mainly absent from the operatic score, which focuses on the relationship between Lucrezia and her long lost son Gennaro. Also, I'm much happier to see this kind of enhancement presented separately from the opera, rather than the more common modern approach of screening it in the background or shoehorning clever ideas into the sets and costumes. However, the film won't be to everyone's taste. My one disappointment was that the original overture, which is a really lovely piece of music, was dropped. Instead, a short scene involving Lucrezia was placed at the beginning - I'm not sure where from.

I thoroughly enjoyed Figgis's work on stage: sets, costumes and lighting were very effective. In Act I, Alfonso and Lucrezia's throne room was a glorious representation of a renaissance dipytch. For one of Alfonso's entrances, servants roll out a brightly lit blood red carpet across an otherwise completely dark stage - the effect was very powerful. I also loved the translation, by the conductor Paul Daniel, which was clear, sometimes poetic and followed the original well (except, not unreasonably, where Daniel allowed himself to have some fun and take some liberties in the drinking song (or brindisi), in which the Madeira and Cyprus wines of the original were replaced by the rhyming of Chianti, Spumante and various other Italian wines more familiar in 21st century England).

The singing was also of high quality. Claire Rutter is a fine soprano and sang well, although I'm not sure that Lucrezia is a perfect part for her: it's short on the dramatic coloratura at which she excels. She was rather outshone, I felt, by her three main partners. Young tenor Michael Fabiano was great as Gennaro, singing with lovely timbre and lilt as well as perfect diction, supported by a vivacious and melodic performance from Elizabeth DeShong as Gennaro's friend Orsini, who was outstanding both in her telling of Lucrezia's story in the prologue and the act II brindisi. They're both talents to watch out for. As Alfonso, Alastair Miles was a shade slow to warm up, but turned into a sneeringly evil monster while providing us with gorgeous music - perfect bel canto shlock.

I was disappointed by Paul Daniel and the orchestra. For much of the opera, the music sounded leaden and lacking in bite. To be fair, the score doesn't make it easy: Donizetti seems to have been irrepressibly cheerful, and the music has a tendency to revert into happy, bouncy marches and dances at times which are really inappropriate to the drama. But that isn't solved by playing it downbeat, and there were places where the whole thing went a little ragged. The orchestra didn't lift the production in the way I would have hoped for.

Clearly, I'm not party to what goes on behind the scenes, but Daniel is a highly experienced conductor, and I suspect that despite the ovations, he will not have been happy with yesterday's performance. And if the orchestra improves, this production of Lucrezia Borgia will be a real winner, because it's full of the other ingredients necessary: an exciting plot, a tuneful score, great direction and excellent singers. I wish it well.