Gaetano Donizetti Lucrezia Borgia
Melodramma in a prologue and two acts (1833)
Libretto by Felice Romani after Victor Hugo’s play Lucrèce Borgia (1833)
In Italian with German and English surtitles
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‘He was my son, my hope, my comfort…’
Maffio Orsini certainly knows how to party: with the aid of his friends he has just launched into a boisterous drinking song at a party in Ferrara when tolling bells and dirges are heard in the distance. Soon the lights go out and Lucrezia Borgia enters, dressed in black, and announces triumphantly that these young aristocrats will soon be dead. The wine they are drinking has been poisoned, their coffins are already waiting.
This sudden switch from high spirits to mortal fear causes a chill to run down the spine in the final scene of Donizetti’s 1833 opera Lucrezia Borgia. Nor is this the only moment in which the impact of Victor Hugo, with his advocacy of the use of contrast, is further enhanced by the music. In the preface to his Renaissance drama Lucrèce Borgia, Hugo – an idol of Italy’s young ‘Romantic’ composers – had argued that contrasting elements should be boldly combined: the festive and the macabre, the tragic and the comic.
It is not only the situations onstage that are marked by contrast, so, too, is the main character, who is both a murderous monster and a woman who dreams of a life as a loving mother. The happiness she feels in the Prologue in the presence of her son Gennaro, whom she has tracked down in Venice but who is unaware of her true identity, lasts only a moment for his friends recognize the hated woman and expose her. She will never forget this mortifying humiliation. But her cruel vengeance unintentionally destroys Gennaro, too. In the final scene between Lucrezia and her fatally poisoned son, Donizetti creates a further powerful situation expressed in music whose sense of dramatic tension, intensely expressive melodic writing and rhetorical concision were to leave their mark on the young Verdi.
Translated by Stewart Spencer