Donizetti Meets Cable TV, in 'Lucrezia Borgia'

Donizetti's opera has three parts -- a prologue and two acts. As the PROLOGUE begins, a young man named Gennaro has returned from Venice with a group of friends. When they leave him alone, Genarro falls asleep on a bench, and a masked woman appears.

It's Lucrezia Borgia, who is already notorious. She's been married three times, and most people believe she murdered her first two husbands -- along with any number of her family's enemies. Lucrezia recognizes the sleeping Gennaro as her son, who was separated from her many years ago.

Gennaro wakes up. He's completely forgotten his mother, and has no idea who this masked woman is. But when his friends return, they rip off the mask and reveal her as the infamous Lucrezia. Many of them have lost relatives at her hands, including a young man named Maffio Orsini, one of Genarro's closest friends. It seems Lucrezia poisoned Maffio's brother. Gennaro's friends tell him stories about Lucrezia's murderous tendencies, and he's appalled.

When the others leave, Lucrezia asks Genarro to tell her about himself. He says he doesn't know a whole lot, and has no family. His father was apparently a humble fisherman, and he never knew his mother. Lucrezia listens, almost in tears, and offers her sympathy. But, thinking about Lucrezia's murderous reputation, Genarro turns her away -- not knowing that he's rejecting his own mother.

ACT ONE takes place in Ferrara, where the Borgias have a palace. Lucrezia's husband Duke Alfonso has noticed her taking an unusual interest in Gennaro. He doesn't know that the young man is Lucrezia's long-lost son. Only Lucrezia knows that. Instead, Alfonso assumes the two are lovers.

Gennaro and his friends turn up, looking for a good time. They spot the elaborate Borgia crest near the gates to the palace. Gennaro takes his sword, and cuts the "B" off the crest, turning Borgia into the Italian word Orgia -- which translates just as you might expect. The Duke, promptly has Gennaro arrested.

When Lucrezia learns that someone has insulted her family's honor, she's outraged. Without knowing exactly who did it, she orders the culprit to be killed. That's a no-brainer for Alfonso, who immediately goes along, believing she's just ordered the death of her own lover.

Naturally, when Gennaro is led in and identified as the criminal, Lucrezia has second thoughts. When the Duke allows Lucrezia to determine the manner of Gennaro's death, she orders him to drink poisoned wine. Without much choice, Gennaro drinks from the goblet he's given. Then the Duke generously leaves the two alone for what he assumes will be Gennaro's slow and painful death.

But when it comes to poisoning, Lucrezia knows a thing or two. She has an antidote to the poison and gives it to Gennaro, who soon recovers. Lucrezia tells him he'd better skip town in a hurry -- but still does not reveal that she's actually his mother.

In ACT TWO, as Gennaro is making his escape, he runs into Maffio Orsini. The two young men swear their eternal friendship and love -- and Genarro can't bring himself to leave. So instead of leaving town, he and Orsini head for a party at the home of a local princess.

When they arrive, Orsini gets things rolling with a drinking song. Everyone's having a great time when they hear a somber sound from outside. Penitent monks are singing a dirge. The party-goers think that's a bad omen, and decide it's time to be going. But the doors suddenly open, and in walks Lucrezia.

Angrily, she announces someone at the party is guilty of desecrating the Borgia crest. Not knowing exactly who it was, she decided to make everyone present pay -- so she poisoned their wine. They've all just taken their final drink.

But as Lucrezia is enjoying her toxic revenge, she sees Gennaro in the crowd. She thought he had left town -- that she had saved him. Now she discovers that she's poisoned him, instead.

As the others are dying, she takes Gennaro aside, and again offers him an antidote. This time, he refuses to take it. As a last resort, she finally tells him that he is her son. But Gennaro declares that having Lucrezia Borgia for a mother is a fine reason to die. He does, and after a final, bravura scene, Lucrezia falls onto his corpse in a dead faint.