Review by Thomas Gregory
Donizetti’s opera has a special place in Australian performance. A particularly famous role for Dame Joan Sutherland, it is exciting to see Lucrezia Borgia performed by the very company she helped create. Melbourne Opera’s production of the Italian masterpiece has been fortunate enough to include the spectacular Helen Dix in the titular role and be staged in the beautiful Athenaeum Theatre. It is unfortunate, then, that I cannot sing its praises.
Helen Dix, of course, requires great praise. The role of Lucrezia is demanding for the most accomplished of sopranos, and Dix makes the job seem effortless. Beyond the incredible voice is a performer as comfortable in drama as comedy, and has the necessary charisma to hold the centre of the stage at all times.
Dix is supported by a cast of varying strength, of which two deserve mentioning as stand-out performers. Christopher Hillier’s performance as Alfonso may be the closest to matching the shine of the lead star. When Lucrezia and Alfonso go head to head, alone on stage, the audience receives a genuinely world-class performance from the two singers.
Alastair Cooper-Golec also stands out as a truly impressive performer. In the role of the crafty Rustighello, Cooper-Golec is both charismatic and generous. Of those who took the stage for this performance, it is Alastair I am most interested to see in future productions.
It is no surprise that both the Opera Orchestra and Opera Chorus are of the highest standards. While some voices struggled to naturally overcome the sound of the instruments, the large cast of supporting performers and players deserve much praise for the work they put into the show.
While the chance is there, we should also praise Greg Carroll’s set design for this show. Elegant but understated, the backdrops and simple set pieces were striking without being distracting, while the plot-integral sign could not have been designed more beautifully. Carroll and his crew should most certainly be applauded.
Unfortunately, little more could be praised about such a production. While it is clear that Melbourne Opera is about to attract the very best performers, crew, and musicians, Lucrezia Borgia misses something that no show can survive without: cohesion.
From costume to acting, little of the show provided evidence of a group of people with the same singular vision, or even acceptance of a shared goal. While show notes described an attempt at a “Euro-trash mafioso” aesthetic, the mish-mash of costumes made me wonder if each cast member was told to go and find their own clothes based on that single phrase. While every performer had a voice to die for, when required to move their bodies they relied on only a few same movements over and over again. By choosing a few select gestures, the night could quite easily become a dangerous drinking game. One actor had clearly been told they were “comic relief” and offered no other advice, while supporting cast members could reliably be caught looking for something to do with their hands. The choreography of violence was laughable, but I cannot believe it was intentionally so in the context of such scenes.
I cannot help but want to blame the directing for this production’s major faults. Is Lucrezia Borgia an adult pantomime to openly laugh along with, or a dark tragedy of a mother finally facing her sins? Is Lucrezia a woman ambivalent about incest or does she think stroking a thigh the ultimate maternal act? At what point did these brilliant singers finish learning their songs, step onto the stage, and begin creating a performance?
I cannot over-emphasize the power and professionalism of all on stage for Lucrezia Borgia. With its impressive history and current role in the city’s culture, Melbourne Opera knows how to attract the best. However, the most beautiful bouquets are those arranged, not simply the grasping of the best flowers you can find.