Gaetano Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia (1833)

Opera in a Prologue and Two Acts. Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes.

SETTING: Venice and Ferrara, early 16th century. Gennaro is told by his friend Orsini at a party that they will die together at the hands of one Lucrezia Borgia. They meet her after Gennaro sings an odd love duet with her and she is unmasked by enemies. Gennaro pulls down a “BORGIA” sign so it reads “ORGIA” instead and this prompts two revenge poisonings, the second of which ultimately gets him.


PROLOGUE: Venice, a Carnival Party at Palazzo Grimani. (38 minutes)

5, 12, 17: The prelude is dramatic but lyrical if a little formless due to its brevity, and is followed by a slightly ornery opening choral sequence for the party guests. The first item of any note is a cavatina * for Orsini (the contralto trouser-role) which trips out the story about meeting an old man in the woods who warned him to beware of Borgia, and that apparently Orsini and his friend Gennaro are doomed to die together at the hand of one Lucrezia. Gennaro is so bored of this story that he falls asleep in four minutes flat and the partying music continues off-stage, this time a little more lyrically. A very beautiful orchestral passage ** frames Lucrezia’s arrival. Watch out for her rather good romanza ** as she watches the sleeping Gennaro.

22: The Lucrezia-Gennaro duet ** in which Gennaro develops an Oedipal crush on his own mother (sorry, spoiler!). The duet is both charming and energetic.

33: The septet ***, which leads to the unmasking of Lucrezia (against the protests of Gennaro) and her identity reveal to Gennaro (who is horrified), brings the scene to a close.

ACT 1: (36.5 minutes)

Scene 1: Before the Ducal Palace, Ferrara. A large sign reading “BORGIA” which will soon change meaning.

3: After much ornery recitative and off-stage fanfare, Duke Alfonso’s cavatina ** of jealousy (he believes that Gennaro is Lucrezia’s lover) is a very brash and energetic number when it changes gears in the second round. Sorry about what happens to that doll from the Prologue, this Duke seems to have something in common with POTUS.

9, 11: Gennaro decides to show distain for the Borgia’s by destroying the “B” in Borgia, which of course now spells the Italian word for “orgy”. This is followed by a dialogue between the Duke and his servant Rustighello which is set to a string accompaniment ** which was actually the prototype used by Verdi when writing the interaction between Rigoletto and Sparafucile in Rigoletto. It is followed by a fast male chorus *.

Scene 2: A room in the Ducal Palace.

20, 24: Lucrezia demands revenge but when Gennaro is brought in as the self-confessed perp she tries everything to pass off his actions as a youthful prank. Alfonso believes that her actions are prompted by a sexual attraction to the young man, who is ordered out of the room. She tries to dissuade her husband in this belief in a long dramatic scene **. It finally takes on a tune when Lucrezia gets pummelled into submission and is ordered by her husband to chose Gennaro’s method of dispatch *** in order to prove her faithfulness.

28, 31, 34: In the eight minute finale we first get a beautiful trio ***. It changes gears with a lovely melody taken up by Gennaro which is harmonized by Lucrezia ***. After the drink (only Gennaro drinks) Lucrezia explains everything and gives him an antidote to the most glorious (if brief) climactic duet ***. She orders him to leave Ferrara immediately and forever.

ACT 2: (42 minutes)

Scene 1: Another Street Scene, Ferrara.

0: After a sobering orchestral introduction, another male chorus *, it turns ferocious.

6, 14: The Gennaro-Orsini duet *** in which the two men (?) vow to die together is very high drama and the choral backing only helps to bring this out. The chorus comes on with Rustighello and plots to yet another idiot chorus * which sort of kills the surprise factor regarding the mass poisoning.

Scene 2: A party at the Palace of Princess Negroni.

20, 23, 25, 28: It is party time! Again…. It all goes well until Orsini picks a fight and it wraps up in a climactic ensemble **. The poisoned wine arrives (sinister strings bode evil tidings, Donizetti isn’t subtle here). Gennaro does not drink yet because he needs to stay alive until the final curtain, so Orsini sings a Brindisi **. It is ended by a funerary chorus ** from outside, followed by Orsini’s Brindisi parte deux **. More funerary chorus, Lucrezia arrives and tells everyone that they are going to die *. She realizes, rather too late, that Gennaro is among the party of the condemned.

30: The remainder of the opera consists of a duet *** for Gennaro and Lucrezia. He attempts to murder her but she admits her maternal relationship to him (he is her son by a previous marriage) as he pulls a knife on her. She tries to give him another antidote but he refuses, he would rather die with his friends. He does eventually accept her as his mother but he dies at that moment, she screams (literally, not one of those opera screams) and the opera ends bizarrely as she rushes out.


Lucrezia Borgia is a gorgeous score, but in all honestly I personally find the plot to be a predictable mess (and yes, I know I am going to get beaten up for this since this is based on the Victor Hugo play of the same name). There are no surprises, especially not in act 2, you already know Lucrezia is Gennaro’s mother, and the wine at the party is obviously poisoned, it all just feels like procrastination. Orsini would be more interesting as a female love interest for Gennaro, rather than as a male role performed by a contralto. There are far too many parties, three in the plot of which two make up entire scenes, and too many poisonings: the train of dying young Venetian noblemen is off-putting, as is this specific production’s usage of a toy doll that gets torn apart. Musically the opera is rather close to perfect, but the plot just doesn’t do anything for me.  A- from me although I am certain others find this to be an alpha.

21 responses to “Gaetano Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia (1833)”

  1. Gad-awful? It’s dramatic and holds the stage.

    You might find this interesting:

    Have you read Hugo’s play? It was on in Paris a month before I arrived, and got terrific reviews.

    Or much Elizabethan or Jacobean tragedy? Donizetti’s operas are similar aesthetically, with their warped family relations, strong passions, and grisly ends combined with beautiful language/music.


  2. In all honesty I found the plot both simplistic and repetitive, I kept thinking of Caterina Cornaro (it is even structured exactly the same). I also found it rather predictable, how can anyone seriously be surprised that Lucrezia is Gennaro’s mother? Also, having Rustighello come on with the chorus ruined any suspense of the wine at the party being poisoned, too obvious. Act 2 just felt like procrastination even if the two duets were great and the party sequence was good. I also wished the Gennaro-Orsini duet was in act 1. There are eleven characters, of whom only five actually do anything and only four are required to relate the story. You can love it for all I care, this was just my opinion, it just doesn’t work for me. The music is great though, so of course even if it had the plot of Entfuhrung, it was getting an A- at least. Maybe I should say that for others it would be a solid alpha.

    I did like, however, that they used the duet finale rather than the soprano final aria which was forced upon Donizetti. I probably would have dumped on the cavatina finale, but so would have Donizetti probably considering how he hated writing it!


    1. You’re *not* meant to be surprised Lucrezia is Gennaro’s mother; it’s spelt out in the prologue!

      The four main characters are Lucrezia, Gennaro, Alfonso, Orsini, with the two henchmen. The partygoers are really minor parts – like Maurevert, Tavannes, Cossé, Thoré, De Retz, and Méru in Les Huguenots.


  3. Maybe I just don’t get this opera. All the poisonings, it just doesn’t interest me. Meanwhile I’m in Act 3 of Peter Grimes right now.


    1. Poisonings, murders, and infanticide are the essentials of a good story! Ask Agatha Christie.


      1. I’m not sure if this counts as infanticide, Gennaro must be in his early twenties. That would be filicide. Jenufa is about infanticide. I usually find poisoning a rather idiotic dramatic trope, not least due to the existence of antidotes. It is more ridiculous when done on a mass scale.

        Also, try telling that to Jacques Offenbach! Does anyone die? I mean, apart from Antonia?


      2. Also, I am 35 minutes into Brigands. I like it, but I’m not in love with it, and the plot seems very confusing, but it is a comic opera so I am willing to ignore that if I can figure out what is actually going on (so many characters, what is the purpose of the four girls who are kidnapped, are they someone’s daughters? certainly not the monk’s!). I get the Fiorella subplot. The tunes are cute but I’m hoping for something bigger over the next 95 minutes.


      3. You’re right; filicide, not infanticide.

        I haven’t come across any deaths in Offenbach – yet…


      4. Okay, so I did the first half of Brigands. Will do other half tomorrow. Now I want to sleep. I’ve been spending many sleepless nights getting this thesis draft done and on Thursday night I crashed and slept for 14 hours.


      5. Look after yourself, man!


  4. I’m also not sure why you are making such a big deal about this. I gave Maria Tudor and Ruy Blas (both based on an Hugo play) solid Bs, this is an A-. I wish you would confront me over things that actually matter, like if I gave something by Offenbach a gamma, not when I give things A-‘s. You aren’t in love with Adriana Lecouvreur or La Boheme and I didn’t complain (too much) then. 🙂


    1. Meanwhile, next is Les Brigands. I might be a while but the next post will be Les Brigands, I promise.


      1. Also, have you checked out Peter Grimes yet?


      2. Oh, good!


  5. My dear chap! I’m not confronting you, nor making a big deal about it. If I disagree with you, I’m interested in the topic. If I didn’t find your argument interesting, I wouldn’t try to dismantle it! Agreement is less stimulating. 😉


    1. Well that is true. I will give you that. What would be the point of us just agreeing with each other.


      1. “I will give you that.” Are you agreeing with me?


      2. I saw your review for Ba-ta-clan. I wonder what W-man thought of Offenbach?


      3. He thoight an audience burnt alive during a performance of Offenbach deserved it – and wouldn’t it be hilarious if all the Jews in Germany suffered a similar fate while watching Nathan der Weise?


  6. Yeah, in a way. I am agreeing that just agreeing with each other can be boring.

    Meanwhile I was depressed last night and got out of it…by listening to The Flying Dutchman!


  7. Oh yeah, I forgot how much of a humourless SOB Wagner was. And to think that last night TFD got me out of a sad funk? So I listened to Ba-ta-clan, I liked the Huguenots parody! I was a little worried at first that having four French people play Chinese would be a wee bit racist, but it isn’t meant to make fun of Chinese people, it actually pokes fun of mid-19th century operatic convention! Lots of tenor whining and soprano fioritura!


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