She's no Femme Fatale.

"Stop that! I can't see the prompter!" Kowaljow and Fleming. Photo probably by Cory Weaver.

For better or worse, there are two subjects in which I'm pretty well-versed: opera and the allure of the femme fatale. So you can imagine my interest in seeing San Francisco Opera's latest offering, Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, which if you believe what's written in the program notes, is the genre's ultimate example of the bad girl some of us just can't seem to stay clear of no matter how large the red flag waving in front of  our faces. If that weren't enough, the casting was alluring (a star vehicle for Renée Fleming and a major role for the great Vitalij Kowaljow) and after years of pretending I didn't, I now readily admit to truly liking Donizetti. To top it off, the company's never staged it before and I'm a sucker for seeing something new. Sadly, the raison d'etre of the entire production, Fleming's participation, is the fatal flaw in an otherwise decent, though by no means great, night at the opera. 

Standing room wasn't at all crowded for Monday night's performance even though Fleming, who hasn't starred on this stage since 1999's Louise, is guaranteed to sell the house out. I bought my ticket at 5:30 and it was number 40 of 200. There was plenty of room at the rails in both the orchestra and balcony, though it looked like every available seat was sold.

Making his house debut, conductor Ricardo Frizza strode to the podium in an all-black ensemble with an open necked shirt, looking suitably swarthy in that way only Italians can really pull off, though it doesn't seem to stop Russians from trying to emulate them. Really, the Russians should just give up.

Speaking of giving up, the opera opens with Fleming standing center stage while all sorts of commotion is going on around her in slow motion. I've now seen this bit three times in the past two months so can we please have a moratorium on supers in slo-mo? It's interesting the first time, but by the third it's just silly, and in this case unnecessary. In fact there's a whole bunch of things which are unnecessary in this production, but I'll get to that shortly.

SFO's budget woes start becoming apparent off the bat as the chorus sounds under-rehearsed in the first act. Usually the chorus is super tight but on this night they get off to a sloppy start and never gel until the final act and by that time I really didn't care. Fleming enters and gives the first sign that this entire thing isn't going to go very well. When she encounters her son Gennaro (Michael Fabiano) during the opening party scene she sings "What a joy it is to gaze at him." But she's not even looking in his direction- she's looking at the audience, she's looking at the prompter, she's looking stage left- she's looking everywhere but at Gennaro. It  would prove to be one of the most misguided interpretations of a role I've ever seen in an opera.

Fabiano isn't really helping here, because despite having a pretty decent voice and pleasing appearance, he relies on the prompter all night long, so instead of coming off as being captivated by Lucrezia, he's always looking away from her, as if he's wondering if his fly is down or did he leave the iron on in his dressing room. The Act I duet is a total failure because neither seems to be paying attention to the other.

After that, there's a fun and juicy bit where Gennaro's buddies approach Lucrezia and lay the deaths of their nearest and dearest at her feet. It's a fine set up, marking her as a murderous femme fatale, and I'm seriously hoping for some juicy stuff to follow this litany of mayhem. It's during this scene the finer qualities of Fleming's voice emerge for the first time, as she pierces clearly  through the chorus of accusations. As the scene concludes the Borgia insignia descends from above, looking like a logo for a chocolate store in Union Square. It's deliciously fun and tacky, but this isn't supposed to be fun and tacky- it's about murder and incestual desire, so it doesn't quite work. The curtain comes down.

Speaking of things that don't work, Genarro has a pal named Maffio Orsini, inexplicably a trouser role (which goes unexplained in the program) portrayed by the hapless Elizabeth DeShong. Poor DeShong. For some reason she's made to wear an orange Billy Idol wig and her skin has matching bronzer applied all over it, though no one else has to suffer this indignity. On top of that, or beneath it actually, Gennaro stands a full head above her so she looks like a dwarf when she's supposed to be his macho equal, but worst of all she looks like Pia Zadora in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

Coming soon to San Francisco- "Butterfly, the opera": Photo by Corey Weaver

Separated at birth?

At intermission I went outside to smoke and some guy tries to cruise me. Why is that any male under  a certain age at the opera is automatically presumed to be A) gay B) looking to hook up?

The curtain rises on Act II and it's apparent Kowaljow is in excellent form this evening- his voice is literally booming, and it makes me look forward to seeing him in Simon Boccanegra in LA this spring, even though there is nothing remotely Italianate about his voice, it works incredibly well in this role. His authority is masterful. The other thing that becomes apparent in the opening scene of the second act is how much Verdi borrowed from Donizetti in his early and middle periods, because all of this is sounding very Verdi, but it's prime Donizetti, while Verdi was still a pup watching it in the audience. During the second act, the supporting cast really shines, especially the Duke's right hand man Rustighello, portrayed by an excellent Daniel Montenegro. All that good stuff aside, it's here in the 2nd act the wheels come off this production. In what should be the showdown between the Duke and Lucrezia, the scene where we should really see the mettle which marks her as a true femme fatale, Fleming is vacuous- their confrontation has no edge to it at all, and the scene belongs to the Duke. I was imaging what a singer with acting chops- Netrebko or Dessay, Mattila comes to mind, so does Nadja Michael (the acting, not the voice), even Patricia Racette, among others, could have done with this, as it all but begs for some scenery chewing, some nastiness, some confrontation and drama. But there was none to be found from Fleming, who came across as meek and subservient to the Duke's power.

Director John Pascoe paints Lucrezia as a victim in his program notes- of incest, male domination, blah, blah, blah, an that's all fine and good but it's not an excuse to make her weak. And this Lucrezia is weak, draining the opera of any tension and drama and therefore the whole endeavor becomes a bore because Fleming is completely unbelievable in the role. This is exacerbated in the trio which follows where Gennaro drinks some poison, Lucrezia knows this, and yet everyone seems unaffected by it all. Where's the she-monster? Well, there's one in the balcony watching it all, but no one asked her to go onstage. At this point Fleming starts looking at the prompter as much as Fabiano is, and I'm just thinking to myself "good lord, pity those chumps who paid top dollar for this." One good part of Act II is Fleming's costume, which raises the heat a little bit. She may have those weird low notes that come out of nowhere, but Fleming is hot. This only mildly detracts from the fact that the blocking in this act was a disaster (why are Lucrezia and Genarro singing of their love while standing at opposite ends of the stage?) and when the whole thing winds down with the Duke giving Lucrezia a slug to the jaw I at least wish we'd gotten to that point awhile ago, though for different reasons. Kowaljow and Montenegro are the only ones acting the parts- everyone else is doing park and bark.

It's all so straightforward and in this case boring. Now I don't mind straightforward and traditional- the Traviata featuring Swenson, Hvorostovsky and Villazon during the Rosenberg era was as traditional as can be without putting statues onstage in place of the singers, but it was done with such conviction that it remains one of my top 5 all-time opera experiences. This is just trad masking itself as something more edgy, but it's not despite Pascoe's lame attempts to play up the homo-eroticism between Gennaro and Maffio (next time cast it more believably, for starters) and making Lucrezia a victim (side note- all Femme Fatales have been victimized- it's why they become what they are).

At the second intermission I choose to stay upstairs and avoid the cruiser, and end up listening to this couple talk about "The Tudors" for twenty minutes. Seems everyone thinks the sex in this show is pretty hot, so if that's your thing check it out. Ironically, Showtime also has a show about the Borgias, so maybe that's worth checking out too, if you're into incest and stuff like that. I'm not judging. I also overhear another couple dismissing all French people as "armchair critics who only parrot what they read in the papers." Or on blogs. On the whole, it doesn't seem to be a very discerning audience, exhibit A being the yahoo next to me in shorts who insists on clapping first, even if the music isn't over, and also on clapping last, after the music has resumed.

Okay, so now we're at Act III. Are you still with me? We can stop here, honestly. It didn't get any better. Genarro and Pia do their  "till death do us part" duet that just looks ridiculous, especially since Fabiano is still staring at the prompter through most of it. The ending scene is described as a "riot" of a party but there area only nine people onstage and unless all of those nine people are John Belushi or Iggy Pop, nine people don't make a riot. The scene looks cheap. Where is everybody? Even when the party swells to fifteen revelers the huge set still looks empty.

At the end, when Genarro is dying from poison (you didn't really need a spoiler alert for that, did you?), Fleming isn't floating a single note Bel-Canto style. The voice sounds good, but not for this material. It's appropriate she's announced this gig was her last in this kind of role. In the end, she slashes her throat- a bit of verismo that comes all too late. If we only could have had that kind of conviction from the beginning maybe it would have all been worth it.

Still, Fleming received a tremendous ovation for a mediocre performance at best, and there are plenty of folks who will think this was great. It wasn't, but that's the current state of things at SFO. It made me hope that Turandot, which I was going to pass on, will redeem a season that so far has been a complete disappointment. Check back next week.