Lucrezia Borgia - Nationaltheater Munich, 25 July 2011
Created two years ago as a star vehicle for the eternal Edita Gruberova, Christof Loy's production is well-known to those interested in such things via the DVD which appeared soon afterwards. Loy's latterday predilection for monochrome, minimalist sets is manifested in a stage that remains resolutely bare except for the occasional chair. But then who goes to the opera to admire the furniture (apart from Amazon reviewers)?
The rear wall, which spells out the name of Lucrezia Borgia in neon letters, moves imperceptibly off stage as the opera progresses. Gradually the letters of her name disappear from view until nothing is left - not an entirely accurate metaphor for the narrative trajectory, but we get the point.
As ever, Loy coaxes convincing dramatic performances from his entire cast, most of whom return from the first run. Never mind that there's no upholstery to admire, the singers are enough.
This must be a major reason he's become a favoured collaborator of Gruberova in her latter years, enabling her to substitute gripping acting for the inevitable loss of vocal lustre. Her technique is still impeccable, with a breathtaking messa di voce and perfectly controlled pianissimos. But the tone, never pretty anyway, turns unpleasantly harsh and fibrous the higher she goes. Her high notes remain intact, though where she couldn't sneak up on them she lunged, with variable results. Her climactic E flat began as a D and ended, appropriately, with a bloodcurdling scream.
But the odd shortcoming couldn't detract from an utterly compelling performance that would be remarkable from any soprano, let alone one who's celebrated her 65th birthday. They say you have to experience Gruberova in the flesh to understand why she still commands a devoted following and 30 minute ovations in the few houses where she still performs. They're right. The musical integrity and dramatic honesty of her performance has burned itself onto my memory - I somehow doubt if any other singer will measure up now. And what a professional - the show started at 7pm, but (according to an insider) she started warming up at lunch time.
Perhaps surprisingly, given Gruberova's incandescent presence, the story is told from Gennaro's perspective. He's a schoolboy, mucking around with his mates. Lucrezia first appears to him in a dream, a comforting maternal presence. Loy slips in a gratuitous shirtless scene for Pavol Breslik as Lucrezia bandages his scraped knee, but that's the only bit of real silliness in the whole production. At the end we're in the classroom, with Gennaro's dreams shattered by the reality of Lucrezia's evil ways.
Although Breslik doesn't possess the requisite Italianate tone, he sang with an unexpected power and conviction that meant it didn't matter. Franco Vassallo sang Don Alfonso with authority and flexibility, producing some splendid high notes. Only Silvia Tro Santafé's Maffio Orsini disappointed - she was popular with the audience, but I found her wide, rapid vibrato irritating and unmusical.
The orchestra, under Paolo Arrivabeni, compensated for the previous evening's shambles with tight, punchy playing and immaculate co-ordination. A pity Munich's 'acoustic enhancement system' tended to flatten out the dynamics though.
Production photos by Wilfried Hösl for Bavarian State Opera feature the 2009 cast - more here.
The production trailer: