Recently, many cable television aficionados, along with fans of 15th-century Italian history, were glued to their screens for the much-ballyhooed finale of The Borgias, a colorful series on the Showtime network -- and thanks to Gaetano Donizetti, more than a few opera-lovers may have tuned in, as well.
The show takes its name from a famous historical family. The patriarch of the Borgias -- both in real life and on TV -- was Rodrigo, who got himself elected as Pope Alexander VI in 1492.
Showtime billed their series as "The Original Crime Family," which might seem like something of an oversell. Still, the historical Borgias were influential, political powerbrokers at a time when the term "cut-throat politics" was more than just a figure of speech, and there's at least one member of the family who has an especially lethal reputation even today: Pope Alexander's daughter, Lucrezia Borgia.
In truth, the historical Lucrezia may have been perfectly respectable; she supported the arts and did charitable work. But by now, her enduring reputation is another thing altogether -- and it's easy to see how that got started. She was married three times. The first marriage was annulled under shady circumstances, and her second husband was murdered -- apparently by her own brother. All of that gave plenty of impetus to any number of scandalous rumors.
So it's hardly surprising that by now, Lucrezia may be less familiar from the history books than she is from dramatic portrayals -- which seldom treat her kindly. For example, in the Showtime series, her character starts out innocently enough, but quickly becomes a femme fatale. By the final episode, she also lives up to one particularly nasty rumor that has stuck with her over the centuries: that she was a master poisoner. And that's the same rumor Donizetti exploits in the 1833 opera that bears Lucrezia's name.
Now, if you're thinking that Donizetti, working in the tradition-laden world of the opera house, made Lucrezia a less sensational character than she is in the often salacious TV series, think again. Then again, most opera lovers would never harbor that thought in the first place.
The truth is, opera was a hotbed of sensationalism long before cable television came along. And in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, the notorious title character does more than just poison a husband or two. She does in a whole ballroom of people, including her own son. All at the same time.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Lucrezia Borgia from the Royal Theatre of the Mint -- La Monnaie -- in Brussels. Romanian soprano Elena Mosuc sings the daunting title role, with American tenor Charles Castronovo as Lucrezia's son Genarro, in a production led by conductor Julian Reynolds.