For the latest round of their long-running series Celebrity Operanovice, ENO challenged movie director Mike Figgis to produce a bel canto classic with a budget of just six figures.
Mike had written the music for many of his films but he only saw his first opera three years ago - "Verdi, the one where she's dying". To prepare for his big West End challenge, he watched a few more from the comfort of a Coliseum box. Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto and Improbable's Satyagraha were favourites. Even snooty opera critics would agree these are great picks. Miller's Rigoletto marries a diamond-sharp update to finely-detailed character direction, and the visual ingenuity of Satyagraha borders on the magical.
So how did Mike do? "A static, old-fashioned production" said the Guardian's Tim Ashley. "Deeply conventional and frankly boring" claimed Barry Millington in the Evening Standard. "Kicking life into this production would be like trying to raise one of the Borgias’ many corpses from the dead" concluded the FT's Richard Fairman.
It's rare that London's opera critics agree on anything - could they be right? I began to see their point immediately. It's hard to see any evidence of direction at all. The singers are plonked into the most traditional and unimaginative sets conceivable and just left to get on with it. Imagine any Pavarotti DVD and you've got it. Textbook park and bark.
All Figgis's energy - and at a guess, most of the budget - has gone into the series of interleaving mini-films that purport to tell Lucrezia's back story. Why, who knows - this is a Donizetti opera after all. It's like exploring character motivation in a Transformers movie. Perhaps it's something to do with tarting up the show for its Sky 3D broadcast later in the month.
Instead of the singers Figgis has employed a younger and foxier cast. The style is Liz Hurley Embarrassing Back Catalogue. Alongside all the unintentionally tittersome Renaissance Fayre corsetry, flashed nipples and Male Gaze lesbianism runs a disturbing current of misogyny. A propos of nothing whatsoever we're informed about gang rape of courtesans, then treated to the irrelevant spectacle of panting lingerie-clad women on dog leads and a brutal forced infibulation. It's a soiling experience, even if the glossy production values of a Galaxy ad remind that Figgis is at least an accomplished craftsman in this medium.
At least the casting director has recognised that the main reason for staging Lucrezia Borgia these days is simply to show off brilliant singing. In the title role, Claire Rutter displayed lucent tone and precise coloratura. Michael Fabiano as her son Gennaro has a fabulously bright, ardent tenor and an Alagna-like ability to make you feel he's giving 110% every second he's on. There's an occasional tendency to allow the vowel to colour his sound more than the meaning, but I'm being picky there. As Lucrezia's husband, bass Alastair Miles was darkly expressive, and managed a welcome degree of physical characterisation that carried to my balcony seat.
The strong, characterful Maffio Orsini of young American mezzo Elizabeth DeShong nearly stole the show. It seems Mike Figgis couldn't decide whether this should be played as a traditional pants role or not - so she got a bodice to go with with her trousers. More confusing than daringly ambiguous.
Paul Daniel played it disappointingly safe in the pit, elegant playing not quite compensating for stodgy tempos and an unwillingness to embrace the vulgar implications of the score's melodrama. The less said about his ghastly poet/know it, Dante/Chianti translation the better - though chortling at the surtitles did help stave off the urge to kip.
Using a novice opera director as bait to attract novice opera goers is a dangerous game (and how many of the target 20-ish audience rate the 60-ish Hampstead favourite Figgis anyway?) It's about as far from cutting edge as Simon Cowell's hairdo. Most first-timers, I conjecture, would depart from this tedious, old-fashioned effort with prejudices not only confirmed but reinforced. Depressing.