By 1980, both the 53 year-old Alfredo Kraus as Gennaro and the 54 year-old Joan Sutherland, playing his mother Lucretia Borgia probably had their best years behind them This is a nevertheless a valuable recording as it gives us the chance to see and hear two of the great voices of the 20th century in a high quality recording of the Covent Garden production of Donizetti's opera.
I recently reviewed the excellent 2002 La Scala production and I took this old recording down from my shelves out of curiosity to see how it compared. I probably did things the wrong way round. If I had seen this production first I am sure I would have reacted more favourably. The set and costumes are certainly colourful, so much so that I had to turn the colour down on my television. Anne Howells looks delectable in doublet and hose in the trouser role of Orsini but I felt that all she needed was a cat and she could have done a credible turn as Dick Whittington. The pantomime feel of the production is most apparent in Sutherland and Kraus's artificial gestures that nowadays appear rather dated. When Dame Joan makes her first appearance she is wearing a little black mask so that she looks, for all the world, like that other famous Australian Dame, Edna Everage.
The plot centres around the retribution brought upon Gennaro for defacing the Borgia statue. He changes the word Borgia to Orgia. Lucretia's husband Alfonso, a suitably evil Stafford Dean, wants to have Gennaro killed for this crime but Lucrezia warns him off with the splendidly threatening line:"Be careful Alfonso, remember you are my fourth husband " Nevertheless, Lucretia herself manages to poison Gennaro, not once but twice, which as Oscar Wilde might have said, seems like carelessness. At the end of the opera, Lucrezia is supposed to hit a high note and simultaneously stab herself. Dame Joan can manage the high note but not the stabbing. She acknowledges the audience applause before falling, lifeless, on her son's body.
Mirella Devia in the La Scala production manages the suicide as well as the suicidal top note. Her performance is more feminine, whereas, dare I say it, Dame Joan's huge lung power makes her sound more like a castrato. Alfredo Kraus gives a rather effete performance as Gennaro which is no match for Marcelo Alvarez's virile performance at La Scala. Anne Howells and Stafford Dean do well but, again, compare badly with Daniella Barcellona and Michele Pertusi in the later version. This is a hugely enjoyable and historically fascinating film but, if you are only going to have one version of Lucrezia Borgia in your collection, this would probably not be the one to pick.
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