Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia was written in 1833. Today it hangs around the outskirts of the standard operatic repertory. According to operabase.com it was performed 22 times worldwide during the season of 2013-14. At the Met it has managed only one performance in the company’s history. That was in 1904 with Enrico Caruso as Gennaro. I find it hard to fully understand the reason for its relative neglect. Perhaps its due to the opera’s second act – it consists of a prologue and two acts – the first half of which is weaker than the two sections that proceed it. But taken as a whole this is a very fine example of Donizetti near the top of his game. The Met could do far worse than bring it back for a second performance. It has the singers on its roster who can do justice to the work.
The opera made Montserrat Caballé (born 1933) famous. The Catalan soprano made her American debut in the title role in 1965 in a concert version of the opera at Carnegie Hall. Her triumph at Carnegie Hall was soon repeated at the Met. The following year she recorded the opera for RCA with a very strong cast – see below.
Modern technology has resurrected this recording. Amazon manufactures each copy when it is ordered. The buyer gets it as soon as if it were on Amazon’s shelves. It comes in a jewel case with liner notes, though no libretto. Amazon sells the two CD set for $8.99.
Caballé is brilliant as the much maligned Lucrezia. It’s easy to see why her unexpected appearance in New York created such a sensation. She was a late replacement for another soprano. Let’s start at the end. Era desso il figlio mio is the cabaletta that concludes the opera. In it she laments the death of her son, Gennaro, whom she has inadvertently poisoned. When you’re in the poison business, this sort of accident can happen. Apparently the real Lucrezia wasn’t in that business. Donizetti wrote the display piece to please Henriette Méric-Lalande, the soprano who first sang Lucrezia. The composer didn’t like it and took it out later. But, of course, any diva, worth the title puts it back in.
Alfredo Kraus (1927-99) was just about the perfect bel canto tenor. He could sing with style and grace and had a top the equal of any tenor within living memory. In Di pescatore ignobile esser figliuol credei (it’s in the prologue) Gennaro reminisces about his childhood. Kraus’s singing is a model of vocal perfection.
The prologue concludes with everyone denouncing Lucrezia for all the murders she’s committed. It’s one of Donizetti’s best and clearly shows where Verdi got his model for the great ensembles that he authored. Note the exquisite pianissimo in alt that Caballé floats in the middle of the number. Prologue finale
In the first act Lucrezia’s husband, the Duke of Ferrara, gives Gennaro a glass of poisoned wine. This trio occurs before the Duke leaves and Lucrezia gives her son an antidote. The tenor carries a beautiful melodic line over the interchange between husband and wife. The effect is inspired. Guai se ti sfugge un moto. Ezio Flagello (1931-2009) as the Duke is in great voice throughout the recording.
The splendid Shirley Verrett (1931-2010) was luxuriantly cast as Gennaro’s best friend Orsini. His brief Drinking Song was for a long time the best known piece from the opera.
Jonel Perlea (1900-70), who also conducted the Carnegie Hall performance, leads a taut rendition of Donizetti’s opera. Perlea was a great conductor of opera. Unfortunately, he suffered a heart attack and stroke in 1957 which rendered his right arm useless. He learned to conduct with his left hand, but his impairment limited his conducting activities.
In summary, an outstanding performance of an unjustly neglected opera. Highly recommended.