Opera Boston’s Lucrezia Borgia , the BSO’s Oedipus Rex  
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  May 9, 2006

EXPLOSIVE OEDIPUS: Christoph von Dohnányi led the season closer.

Of the three operas recently competing with one another, Opera Boston’s presentation of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia was in some ways the most fun, an evening of “total theater” — largely unfamiliar but compelling music, expansively and propulsively conducted by Gil Rose and elegantly played; eye-catching and workable sets (Steven Capone capturing the sinister side of Venice and Ferrara) and sexy punk/Renaissance costumes, down to studded codpieces (Nancy Leary); atmospheric chiaroscuro lighting (Christopher Ostrom); skillful, smart staging (Jay Lesenger) keeping the plot in motion and capitalizing on its numerous dramatic confrontations; and singers giving their considerable all.

A perfect cast for this challenging example of early-19th-century bel canto is almost inconceivable. So you could go down the line and fault pitch problems or vocal strain or cloudy tone. Yet major opera houses would be hard pressed to find a more convincing ensemble. Almost every cast member was a skillful actor who sang — and moved — stylishly and in character, whether soldier, spy, assassin, or duke. Given the opera’s many duets (something Verdi must have picked up before he composed Rigoletto, another opera in which the central plot concerns a parent trying to protect a concealed offspring), it was thrilling to see characters looking their interlocutors right in the eye, even staring them down.

Mezzo-soprano Christine Abraham (the impressive heroine of Boston Lyric Opera’s post-9/11 production of Tod Machover’s Resurrection) was outstanding in the leather-trouser role of Orsini, the soldier-of-fortune/poet who has the opera’s famous drinking song and is the best friend of Gennaro (tenor Justin Vickers), the secret son of Lucrezia Borgia (so secret he himself doesn’t know). Their rambunctious cohort, all ultimately victims of Lucrezia’s poisonous plot, included Steven Saunders, Christian Figueroa, Tae Suk Sue, and Tom O’Toole. John David Adams and Alan Schneider were vividly opposing spies; William Thorpe was a menacing assassin (another character foreshadowing Rigoletto); and Bert Johnson (Duke of Ferrara, Lucrezia’s fourth husband — a statistic she uses to remind him of just where he stands) made a strong royal adversary, especially when his dark voice came into focus.

In the title role, the exciting young (not yet 30) Quincy soprano Barbara Quintiliani, who just won the prestigious Francisco Viñas competition in Spain, made a complicated impression. She commands the stage. Her enormous and often beautiful voice rides easily over chorus and orchestra. Sometimes it’s ear-popping in its brilliant flexibility, occasionally just effortful. In her third performance within five days, she at first sounded tired and unsteady; several important high notes (like her very last) were shy of true pitch. She threw herself into the role, outsnarling her enemies, banging on a table. She has the openly expressive face and broad responses of a silent-movie heroine — larger than life in a cast of more sophisticated actors, but in a part that’s meant to be larger than life. Some subtlety in Quintiliani’s acting might not only enrich her dramatic capabilities but also help her vocal control. Audiences love her. But if she’s to have an important career, she’ll need more than love.

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