Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Lucrezia Borgia (Donizetti) - Synopsis
Lucrezia Borgia -
An Opera by Gaetano Donizetti
Opera, in a prologue and two acts, by Donizetti; words by Felice Romani, after Victor Hugo. Produced, La Scala, Milan, 1834; Théâtre des Italiens, Paris, 1840; London, 1849; in English, 1843; New York, Astor Place Opera House, 1847; with Grisi, September 5, 1854; with Tietjens and Brignoli, 1876; Academy of Music, October 30, 1882; Metropolitan Opera House, with Caruso, 1902.
ALFONSO DESTE, Duke of Ferrara
GENNARO, young nobleman in service of the Venetian Republic
LIVEROTTO, young nobleman in service of the Venetian Republic
VITELLOZZO, young nobleman in service of the Venetian Republic
RUSTIGHELLO, in the service of DON ALFONSO
GUBETTA, in service of Lucrezia
ASTOLFO, in service of Lucrezia
Gentlemen-at-arms, officers, and nobles of the Venetian Republic; same, attached to court of Alfonso; ladies-in-waiting, Capuchin monks, etc.
Time: Early sixteenth century.
Place: Venice and Ferrara.
When an opera, without actually maintaining itself in the repertory, nevertheless is an object of occasional revival, it is sure to contain striking passages that seem to justify the experiment of bringing it forward again. "Lucrezia Borgia" has a male character, Maffeo Orsini, sung by a contralto. Orsini;s ballato. "Il segreto per esse felice (O the secret of bliss in perfection), is a famous contralto air which Ernestine Schuman-Heink, with her voice of extra-ordinary range, has made well-known all over the United States.
I quote the lines from the Ditson libretto:
O the secret of bliss in perfection,
Is never to raise an objection,
Whether winter hang tears on the bushes,
Or the summer-kiss deck them with blushes.
Drink, and pity the fool who on sorrow,
Ever wastes the pale shade of a thought.
Never hope for one jot from the morrow,
Save a new day of joy by it bought!
The music has all the dash and abandon that the words suggest. Orsini sings it at a banquet in Ferrara. Suddenly from a neighbouring room comes the sound of monks voices chanting a dirge. A door opens. The penitents, still chanting, enter. The lights grow dim and one by one go out. The central doors swing back. Lucrezia Borgia appears in the entrance. The banqueters are her enemies. She has poisoned the wine they have just quaffed to Orsinis song. They are doomed. The dirge is for them. But -- what she did not know -- among them is Gennaro, her illegitimate son, whom she dearly loves. She offers him an antidote, but in vain. He will not save himself, while his friends die. She then discloses the fact that she is his mother. But, even then, instead of accepting her proffered aid to save his life, he repulses her. Lucrezia herself then drains the poisoned cup from which he has quaffed, and sinks, dying, upon his prostrate form. Such is the sombre setting for the Brindisi -- the drinking song -- "the secret of bliss in perfection" -- when heard in the opera.
The tenor role of Gennaro also has tempted to occasional revivals of the work. Mario introduced for this character as a substitute for a scene in the second act, a recitative and air by Lillo, "Com è soave quest ora di silenzio" (Oh! how delightful this pleasing hour of silence), a change which is sometimes followed.
Prologue. Terrace of the Grimani palace, Venice. Festival by night. Gennaro, weary, separates from his friends and falls asleep on a stone bench of the terrace. Here he is discovered by Lucrezia, who is masked. She regards him with deep affection. "Com è bello quale incanto" (Holy beauty, child of nature) she sings.
Genraro awakens. In answer to her questions he tells her that he has been brought up by a poor fisherman "Di pescatore ignobile" (Deemd of a fishers lowly race).
The youths friend come upon the scene. Maffeo Orsini tears the mask from Lucrezias face, and in a dramatic concerted number he and his friends remind Lucrezia, for the benefit of Gennaro, who had been struck by her beauty and was unaware that she was the hated Borgia, how each has lost a brother or other relative through her. "Maffio Orsini, signora, son io cui svenasto il dormente fratello" (Madam, I am Orsini. My brother you did poison, the while he was sleeping). And so each one in order.
Gennaro turns from her in loathing. She faints.
Act I. A public place in Ferrara. On one side a palace. Alfonso, who, incidentally, is Lucrezias fourth husband, she having done away with his predecessors by poison, or other murderous means, is jealous of Gennaro. Like the youth himself, he is ignorant that Lucrezia is his mother, and is persuaded that he is her paramour. He has two solos. The first is "Vieni la mia vendetta" (Haste then to glut a vengeance); the second, "Qua lunque sia, Ievento" (On this I stake my fortune).
Gennaro and his friends come into the Plaza. They see the letter BORGIA under the escutcheon of the palace. Gennaro, to show his detestation of Lucrezias crimes, rushes up the steps and with his sword hacks away the first letter of the name, leaving only ORGIA. At the command of the Duke, he is arrested.
Lucrezia not knowing who has committed the outrage, demands of her husband that its perpetrator be put to death. Alfonso, with cynical readiness, consents. Gennaro is led in. Lucrezia now pleads for his life. The Duke is firm, even though Lucrezia quite casually reminds him that he is her fourth husband and may share the fate of the other three. ("Aye, though the fourth of my husbands, you lord it.") His comment is the command that Gennaro shall meet death by quaffing a goblet of poisoned wine handed to him by Lucrezia herself. There is here a strong trio for Lucrezia, Gennaro, and Alfonso, as Alfonso pours wine for himself and Lucrezia from a silver flagon, while he empties the poisoned contents of a gold vessel, "the Borgia wine," into Gennaros cup. But Lucrezia has he antidote; and, the Duke having left her with Gennaro, in order that she shall have the pleasure of watching the death of the man of whom he suspects her to be enamored, she gives it to Gennaro, and bids him flee from Ferrara.
Act II is laid in the Negroni palace, and is the scene of the banquet, which has already been described.
When "Lucrezia Borgia" was produced in Paris, in 1840, Victor Hugo, author of the drama upon which the libretto is based, objected. The French have long gone much further than we do in protecting the property rights of authors and artists in their creations. The producers of the opera were obliged to have the libretto rewritten. The title was changed to "La Rinegata" and the scene was transferred to Turkey.