The name "Borgia" still carries with it the lingering scent of intrigue, conspiracy, assassins, poisonings, vengeance, corruption, the relentless drive for power . . . as well as the glorious flourishing of the Italian Renaissance. Winter Opera, in collaboration with Washington University, has presented a very fine world premiere of Borgia Infami, an ambitious and largely successful opera by Harold Blumenfeld (music) and Charles Kondek (libretto). Blumenfeld, who died in 2014, was a professor of music at Washington University for some thirty years. Now we have a chance to see his final work.
A Spanish family, the Borgias rose to great power in Italy during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The paterfamilias, Alfons, became Pope Calixtus III. His son, Rodrigo, was Pope Alexander VI. This opera deals with the most infamous members of the family: Rodrigo, his son Cesare (the prince whom Machiavelli famously advised) and Cesare's sister, Lucrezia (of poison ring fame). In addition there's a rather mysterious member of the family -- born secretly in the Papal Palace and called the Infans Romanus or, in this work, "Narciso."
Now, modern scholars tend to exonerate Lucrezia from being the diabolical poisoner that her enemies have portrayed for 400 years. But let's face it, that diabolical Lucrezia makes much better opera. Donizetti knew that, as shown in his 1833 opera about her. Victor Hugo displayed the same sensibility in his hyper-melodramatic tragedy which appeared in the same year. In this new opera, Borgia Infami, Lucrezia is tainted with those same old sins -- a little incest and the poisoning of a whole dinner party -- including (inadvertently) her own beloved bastard son.
As has become standard practice with Winter Opera the voices and all technical aspects of the production are superb. And this production takes full advantage of the beautifully equipped Edison Theatre at Wash U.
On stage we see a hall in a great museum in Rome. Three grand Renaissance paintings serve as background to all the scenes: On our left is Cesare Borgia, the epitome of the powerful prince; at the center we see a portrayal of the coronation of Pope Alexander VI; and to the right is a portrait of the beautiful Lucrezia. These paintings are most beautifully done. Moreover they are on scrims, so that from time to time, with a subtle change of light, we see the subject of a painting coming to life behind the transparent gauze.
A tour guide is leading a group of American ladies through the exhibit and telling them the tale of the Borgias. We shift easily back and forth in time to see the tale enacted. The guide, by simply slipping on a doublet, becomes Narciso, the bastard son who is searching for his mother.
Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Anderson sings a most beautiful Lucrezia, and as an actress she powerfully conveys the fierce emotions of this embattled woman. Her "vengeance" aria is filled with blazing hatred, and her anguish at realizing she has poisoned her son is heart-breaking.
Rodrigo, the Pope, is sung by baritone Jacob Lassetter. He brings fine vocal power and great dignity to this prince of the Church.
Cesare Borgia is sung by Andrew Potter. With a wonderfully strong bass voice and a tall, commanding physical presence he is quite perfect for this role.
Tenor Anthony Heineman does excellent work as Savanarola, an enemy of the Borgias. (He is burned at the stake before our very eyes.)
Among the many fine voices in this production I must single out tenor John Kaneklides for special praise. He sings the double role of the tour guide and Narciso. Kaneklides has a remarkably strong and clear voice, and his diction is astonishingly perfect. No need to glance at the supertitles when this man is singing.
Supporting roles are filled with corresponding strength. Zachary Devin, Jason Mallory, Joel Rogier, and Robert McNichols, Jr., play the Borgia enemies who die at Lucrezia's hand. (This, by the way, is the second "Lucezia" opera in which Mr. McNichols has appeared; last year he was the comic Chucho in Gateway Opera's little zarzuela about a different Lucrezia.)
The American tourists are commendably sung by Karen Kanakis, Leann Schuering and Victoria Menke.
A delightful children's chorus skips and breezes onto the scene from time to time, playing and teasing to brighten things just when it's most needed. They are Caroline Danforth, Quinn DiMartini, Julia Joseph, Ruby Krajicek, Madison Ruggeri and Brooke Tatum.
The music is a lovely mix of rather modern and distinctly classical. It's all serious, yet accessible. There are lovely duets and trios, and a beautiful sextet (or rather a quartet contending with a duet). There are quite luscious passages of almost Gregorian chant in Latin.
Charles Kondek gives us really fine lyrics--easy, natural, often witty, sometimes erudite. But there is, I think, something lacking in the plot of this opera. It's very difficult to present a drama with three central characters. We see Cesare hiring the assassination of his brother Giovanni (Juan) so that he can assume Giovanni's military honors. We see Rodrigo eager to establish an hereditary papacy. We see Lucrezia drawn into the intrigue, loving (and perhaps even lusting after) her bastard son. But there is little of a true dramatic arc to the story--one motive ineluctably driving the action.
The program indicates that this production is a "reduction" of the original. Certainly a dramatist (or composer) must be able to cut parts of his precious work to make it producible. A great artist must be able to cut really good parts. Perhaps the element I'm missing in this opera lies on the cutting room floor.
Gina Galati, whom we usually see singing an aria, is the stage director of this production and she does splendid work. Scott Schoonover again does fine work as conductor of this excellent orchestra. Scott Loebl designed the set, J.C. Krajicek costumed the production, and Natali Arco designed lighting; all have done quite beautiful work.
Borgia Infami played at the Edison Theatre at Washington University September 30 to October 1, 2017.