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“Wherever she goes, there goes death” ETO’s magnificent portrayal of Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia. Photo (c) Richard Hubert Smith.

Lucrezia Borgia by Donizetti, English Touring Opera, and Old Street Band, at the Royal Spa Centre, Leamington Spa, 20 May 2023.

Review by Anne Cee.

Lucrezia Borgia is a mysterious figure from history who may or may not have been a vindictive poisoner but her exceptional life as a contemporary of Michealangelo and Da Vinci and her position of influence within the patriarchy of the Roman Catholic church means she was as intriguing to Donizetti’s audience in 1833 as she is to us today. Even acclaimed author Maggie O’Farrell has been imagining what it was to be Lucrezia Borgia in her latest fictional work, “In the Marriage Portrait”.

English Touring Opera have left me lost for words about their portrayal of Lucrezia Borgia. There are not sufficient superlatives in the English language to do justice to the production that was delivered on Saturday night (20 May 2023) to an audience that I think sensed it was being treated to something really really special.

Thomas Elwin (Gennaro), Paula Sides (Lucrezia). Photo (c) Richard Hubert Smith.

The evening was so good that I found myself checking the ETO website to see if I could catch the show again before they end their spring season – it seems that Exeter is my only option and I’m already checking out train times. So, what got me so excited? The simple answer is everything, because everything was beyond perfect and came together perfectly to create a package that made me lose all sense of time and self.

Conductor Gerry Cornelius, Director Eloise Lally and their teams have created a lively production with originality and flair that is as true to Donizetti’s intentions as current scholarship can suggest. Great care has been expended to track down the score for one of the earliest productions and extensive coaching has invested the principal singers with the freedom to improvise in key moments just as they would have been expected to do in Donizetti’s time.

Italian opera culture of the period was dependent on the soloists calling most of the shots in order to make the roles their own – and this culture lived again in Leamington last night. I have not experienced anything like this before.

Paula Sides (Lucrezia). Photo (c) Richard Hubert Smith.

This generous, trust culture seems to have produced a cast that has the confidence to have an exceptionally natural style within the characters, so the performances have an unforced emotional authenticity that is consistently relatable. For example, every spouse in the audience could surely relate to the escalating row between Lucrezia (Katherine McIndoe) and Alfonso (Jean-Kristof Bouton) which crackled with sexual tension and tense negotiation until it flew into a high stakes, head on, battle of wills. Everyone who has ever seen maternal love in action, would feel Lucrezia’s joy in discovering her lost son, Gennaro (Thomas Elwin), her grief in his loss and her desperate desire to protect him from certain death.

Understudy for the role of Lucrezi - Katherine Indoe conveyed these scenes with a sensitivity and subtlety that went far beyond her incredible vocals, as she held us in lingering melancholy as easily as slipping into flirtatious negotiation. Katherine had stepped in for Paula Sides who had to withdraw from the last four shows of the tour, and will now continue to play Lucrezia for the remainder of the tour. Katherine captured my attention from her very first note.

Bouton and Elwin matched McIndoe fantastically well whilst partnering her individually or together, whether falling for her charm or backing away in cautious distrust of her intentions. Bouton showed great style as a scheming authoritarian and Elwin was great fun in the crowd scenes, dancing provocatively with the stolen letter B.

There’s not space here to mention every aspect of this wonderful production but special appreciation should be made of the fiery fight scenes that were beautifully choreographed and delivered, the fabulously luxurious costumes (especially the leather trousers), and the grand stage sets which made us feel we were carousing by the Giudecca canal during the festival and being 'kept out' by the imposing palace gates. I also loved the stained glass windows.

Lucrezia Borgia. Photo (c) Richard Hubert Smith.

It was a lovely novelty to have the calm elegance of conductor Gerry Cornelius and the string sections sitting so close to the audience, as well as to experience the skilful Old Street Band bringing instruments of the period to life. Though ‘Band’ hardly does justice to this remarkable ensemble of talent. Cornelius and Staff Director, Joseph Winters also provided an interesting, free pre-show talk which allowed the audience to ask questions and learn more about their creative process and pioneering work with young people.

I knew before I attended this ETO production that various members of the cast and creative teams were award winning and now I understand why, thunderous applause suggests the Leamington audience knows too. Full marks to ETO for their confident and exceptionally successful innovations which offered us something different and special. I hope we’ll see much more of this energy and talent on all our stages in coming years. I can hardly wait... now where is that train timetable… anyone for Exeter?


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