Lucrezia Borgia - Claire Rutter (photo by Stephen Cummisky)

Filmmaker Mike Figgis’s opera-directing debut, the new English National Opera production of Donizetti’s lurid Renaissance melodrama Lucrezia Borgia, goes out live on Sky Arts 1 & Sky Arts 2 , and on Sky 3D tonight, as well as in over a dozen cinemas up and down the country.

Donizetti’s opera puts the ruthless, debauched, backstabbing world of the notorious Borgia family to bel canto music and tells a tale of thwarted maternal love and recoiling revenge.  Lucrezia, illegitimate daughter of a pope and brother of the murderous Cesare Borgia, tries to recover the now adult son she secretly gave away at birth, but her scheming ends in a bloodbath.

Perfect material for a film director, clearly, and Figgis certainly doesn’t shrink from showing us the Borgias’ violence and decadence, both on stage and on screen – he’s filmed four short films, interspersed through the opera, that fill in Lucrezia’s equally lurid back-story.

Lucrezia Borgia - Michael Fabiano as Gennaro (photo Stephen Cummisky)

Glossy, gorgeous, and dripping with sex, these films are luscious and compelling, but sadly the action on stage isn’t so gripping. Figgis is a newbie to opera, and it shows. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with the singers and even though he tries to enliven proceedings with eight kinkily attired actresses, who look as though they’ve come direct from one of Silvio Berlusconi’s bunga bunga parties, his staging is far too static.

Fortunately, the singing is fabulous, with Claire Rutter gloriously pulling off Lucrezia’s coloratura flights, while tenor Michael Fabiano is equally strong as her son, Gennaro. Shame, though, that the words they’re singing – conductor Paul Daniel’s English translation of the Italian libretto – often sound like clumsy doggerel.

With the exception of his filmed inserts, Figgis’s handling of Donizetti’s opera is surprisingly conservative – so it will be interesting to see what cinematic maverick Terry Gilliam does with the form when he directs Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust for ENO in May.

Lucrezia Borgia plays for 3 further performances at ENO on Feb 23, 25 & Mar 3 at 7.30pm.

Photos by Stephen Cummisky.