A few strange things happened to Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia" on the way to its first performance Friday at the San Francisco Opera, a mere 178 years after its La Scala premiere.
First is that Renée Fleming in the title role of this star vehicle picked up a dozen hitchhikers, who sang gloriously. Costumed sensationally, La Fleming looked gorgeous and sang in a range from fine to diva-great. Yet she had lots of company in that department.
Second, that the star and passengers - the whole thing - sank. John Pascoe’s clueless direction drained whatever life the work - three hours of generic Donizetti and melodrama in the class of "The Drunkard" - might have offered.
The sets were impressively professional, if needlessly moving, and the costumes opulent. Yet the stage direction recalled the “Amateur Hour,” with goose-stepping "troops" of four or five, fascist salutes, Roman salutes, Etruscan salutes, lighting striking every time something of significance happened, and plentiful awkward or ridiculous mechanical movements.
On stage, it was a "Lucrezia," with Felice Romani's convoluted libretto, and not a good model for women's lib.
Program notes speak of Lucrezia "living in a world of male dominance" and enumerate her alleged virtues. She also was mass murderer, engaging in colorful debauchery and wholesale poisoning. The program also lists the setting as "Renaissance Italy, a time of male domination” - pshaw!
When we meet Lucrezia - Fleming great in her first aria - a sign, reading “Borgia” flies over her. Her misdeeds are revealed, but Gennaro, the besotted hero (Michael Fabiano, in an impressive debut), can't figure who she is, and tells her about the mother he never knew.
The audience feels like shouting, “She is Lucrezia and, alas, she is your mom.”
And the feeling continues: To shout to Lucrezia, tell him who he is before he is killed by your jealous husband; to Gennaro, don't go to the party in Ferrara, where you will be killed. And the end: Lucrezia, tell Gennaro the truth before he dies.
The positive part of these Marx Brothers "Night at the Opera”-style high jinks: The orchestra directed by Riccardo Frizza played excellently.
In addition to Fabiano’s fine lyric tenor, were Elizabeth DeShong's Orsini and Vitalij Kowaljow's Duke Alfonso. Pint-sized DeShong used her powerful voice with adventure. Kowaljow, a tremendous bass, sang straight, but not narrow.
Adler Fellows past and present and young artists sang as if they have spent decades on main stages. Austin Kness (Gazella), Brian Jagde (Vitellozzo), Igor Vieira (Gubetta), Daniel Montenegro (Rustighello) and Ryan Kuster (Astolfo) displayed so much talent that that should have been used in a better vehicle - or opera.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26, Sept. 29, Oct. 5; 2 p.m. Oct. 2; 8 p.m. Oct. 8, Oct. 11
Tickets: $45 to $389
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com