The B in Borgia

Tom Sutcliffe on an enjoyably old-fashioned opera – and a less enjoyable documentary based on a tenuous grasp of the facts

Drop the B from Borgia and you get the supposed message of the opera which Donizetti based on Victor Hugo’s sensationalist treatment of the story of Lucrezia Borgia. With Joan Sutherland in the title role at Covent Garden, it was about singing, not sinning. But for English National Opera, with film director Mike Figgis doing the production, the desired titillation came from his ‘vision’ – as ENO boss John Berry described it, not meaning anything mystical – which consisted of pseudo-documentary film clips interleaved with the opera to ‘reveal Lucrezia’s abusive past.’ A huge screen descended and beautifully photographed self-consciously posed sequences brought us up close to the sinful Marrano-friendly Pope, the wicked brother, and Perotto, the Pope’s messenger..

Purely as film, this fragmentary docu-drama was elegant and gripping. But it had absolutely zilch to do with the business of the evening and of the ENO which was, yet again, pressing determinedly down a dead end (for what is, above all, a ‘performing art’). Any theatricality on show came from designer Es Devlin’s games with an expanding false proscenium and suggestive perspectives in the opera proper.

An unlikely story

Donizetti’s music-drama is about the morality of power, mates and loyalties, about disgruntled youth and the idea of infatuation. It is an unlikely story, and Figgis just let it run on by itself in the lavish period costumes that he used for his film – rather a welcome change these days when drabness rules. There was little sign of Figgis having directed the live performance at all. Maybe benign neglect was better than perverse activity. Along with the audience the night I went, I quite enjoyed seeing an example of old-fashioned historically conscious opera with no acting whatsoever. They stood in a line, sang out front, moved if they had to. Non-opera really.

In the first act Gennaro, Lucrezia’s illegitimate son who has never met his mother (herself the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI and sister of the infamous Cesare) and therefore could not be blamed for falling in love with her when she woke him up on a Venetian canalside in the Prologue, rips off the letter B from the word Borgia on the Duke of Ferrara’s coat of arms by the gates of his palazzo. In the second act Lucrezia’s husband, seeking revenge for this graffiti-like insult, doses Gennaro and his friends with poison, while Lucrezia fails to persuade her son to take an antidote for the second time and has to lose him however much she loves him – after confessing to him that she is his mother.

ENO fielded three very decent singers, while Paul Daniel – a distinguished former ENO Music Director – accompanied them with style and a good balance of energy and decorum. But of course, none of the performers had anything to do with the old English National Opera company which no longer exists. Michael Fabbiano, the young American tenor who was a rangey Gennaro, sang quite thrillingly in audible English. The best performer of all was the new young American mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as Maffio Orsini (though weirdly she seemed to play the role as a real woman rather than in travesty). Claire Rutter delivered well enough in the title role, but did not have the charisma and star personality required.

Historical travesty

The documentary about the King James Bible on BBC4, When God Spoke English, compered by the amazingly ignorant and boring ‘author’ Adam Nicolson, was about as unhistorical as the opera. Clearly he had not even bothered to mug up on Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity. But his most irritating claim of all was to describe a magnificent resonant historic translation as ‘the greatest work of English prose ever written’. Nicolson had very strange ideas about the nature of the Jacobean Church and was wobbly about the role of Puritans within and on the edge of organized church life. He also possessed no sense at all of the contribution to the language made by Cranmer in the Book of Common Prayer. Nor did he grasp how the quality of the King James Bible rests on earlier less happy attempts to marry linguistic accuracy and rhetorical effectiveness. Nicolson managed to give the impression, over and over again, that only the English Puritans were truly interested in putting into English what the Bible actually said – a travesty of the historical facts.

And, above all, translation is not writing. Nicolson’s endless repetitions of preference for phrases in the AV to what earlier versions offered was pointless. Some were straightforward errors, some were issues of clumsiness or mere preference. It does not matter (though it is quirkily interesting) how many phrases are better or more memorable in King James than in the Bishops’ Bible, because the AV has had 400 years to sink deep into the national mind.

Nicolson went on enthusing and making claims about the AV, with – in the background – brief clips of current high church incensing (by the Precentor at Salisbury) to represent the wicked catholic tradition that was implicitly so unhelpful to the blessed Puritans – to whom Nicolson attributed all that is good about the King James version. Nicolson evidently had no real idea there was something special about Lancelot Andrewes. Dumbing down is our fate. But it was desperately sad to have it afflicting our celebration of 400 years of this great and fundamental national monument. ND