Two poisoning attempts (one successful), an uncomfortable misreading of parental affection, and the usual amount of dramatic improbabilities for a bel canto opera: the story of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia is not an uncomplicated one. Based on Victor Hugo’s 1833 play of the same name and composed in the same year for La Scala, Lucrezia Borgia revels in intrigues and family secrets that erupt in moments of high-octane tension between its leads. For all its drama, though, it is far from the most difficult opera to stage, making the muddled direction of Ferenc Anger’s production that mired the evening all the more confounding.

Lidia Fridman (Lucrezia Borgia)
© Attila Nagy | Müpa Budapest

Anger’s staging showed a lack of confidence in its own ability to deliver a well-articulated, entertaining interpretation, settling instead for showy set pieces (designed by Gergely Zöldy Z) and gimmicky, superfluous stage action that contributed little to the piece. While the production keeps the 16th-century setting and, for the most, makes for a fairly literal reading of the libretto, its overall concept is both opaque and incoherent. It’s hard to discern why the action takes place in front of a giant map of the New World, slowly filled out during the opera by a painter, or what need there is for the repeated pantomime of a Virgin Mary stand-in being ordered around, poisoned and revived by Don Alfonso. 

Lucrezia Borgia at Müpa Budapest
© Attila Nagy | Müpa Budapest

The chorus entering as hooded chroniclers, seemingly neutral observers of the plot, might have made for an intriguing meta-commentary on the writing of history (especially with such a controversial figure as Lucrezia Borgia as the core subject), but they proceeded to immediately abandon their stance as outsiders to serve indiscriminately as both Orsini’s and Alfonso’s posse. The giant distillers looming over the stage, providing the poison and the antidote, both in ample use during the opera, are both incredibly heavy-handed as a piece of set design and highly unwieldy, restraining the movement around the stage. The singers were ultimately left to their own devices, resulting in a fair amount of park-and-bark and little genuine emotional expression to move the audience.

Gábor Bretz (Alfonso) and Lidia Fridman (Lucrezia)
© Attila Nagy | Müpa Budapest

Salvaging the evening was a capable cast with some strong stand-outs. A last minute step-in for Yolanda Auyanet, Lidia Fridman in the title role proved a star in the making. With a dark, attractive timbre and remarkable clarity through her entire range, Fridman was a thrillingly good fit for Lucrezia, handling the demands of the role with impressive ease – the only issue with her portrayal being a somewhat stiff stage presence. 

Paola Gardina (Orsini) and Stefan Pop (Gennaro)
© Attila Nagy | Müpa Budapest

Unfortunately, she was not evenly matched by Stefan Pop as Gennaro, whose bright, trumpet-like tenor could soften nicely in the more lyrical moments, but strained on the high notes. Pop’s performance was further weighed down by his histrionics, especially in Gennaro’s death scene. Gábor Bretz, on the other hand, was deliciously evil as Don Alfonso, bringing the best of his silky-smooth bass-baritone and skulking menace; the Act 1 confrontation between him and Fridman's Lucrezia was easily the highlight of the evening. Cecilia Molinari’s burnished mezzo and boyish charm made for a capable Orsini. In the smaller roles, David Astorga (Rustinghello) and Marcell Bakonyi (Astolfo) stood out with some fine singing. Conductor Andriy Yurkevych's precise, sure-handed leadership kept the show running smoothly, delivering a gripping performance with the Pannon Philharmonic – and perhaps the coda to the evening’s inadvertent argument that sometimes, a concert performance could be just enough.