Lucrezia Borgia Synopsis

The Story of Gaetano Donizetti

Spanish operatic soprano Montserrat Caballe performs live during a concert at the Philharmonie on January 31, 2011 in Berlin
Spanish operatic soprano Montserrat Caballe performs live during a concert at the Philharmonie on January 31, 2011 in Berlin. Frank Hoensch/Getty Images

Gaetano Donizetti's opera, Lucrezia Borgia, takes place in Venice and Ferrara, Italy, during the 16th century. The Opera premiered on December 26, 1833, in La Scala, Milan. ​


On the terrace of the Giudecca canal in Venice, the young nobleman Gennaro merrily converses with his friends. They speak of many things, mostly frivolous, keeping the young night lighthearted and happy spirited.  As the evening progresses, they discuss their following day’s travel details (a trip to the home of the Duke of Ferrara) and the people with whom they are to meet (Don Alfonso and the Duke and his wife, Lucrezia Borgia).

Orsini, one of Gennaro’s friends recounts an experience he shared with Gennaro. Alone in the forest, Orsini and Gennaro happened to cross paths with an old man who warned the two men to be cautious of Lucrezia and her family. Gennaro, bored with Orsini’s tale, walks to a nearby bench and falls asleep. The group of friends are invited back inside to attend a party and they leave Gennaro behind. A mysterious woman arrives on a gondola and finds Gennaro sleeping soundly. Drawn to him, she lifts his hand to her mouth and gently kisses it. He awakens and immediately falls in love with her. He sings a song recounting his childhood. Even though he has never met his mother, he loves her dearly, despite being an orphan raised by a group of fishermen. Gennaro’s friends return from the party in search of Gennaro, but when they find him with the mysterious woman, they are shocked. They quickly recognize her as Lucrezia Borgia.

The men begin listing the names of their family members whom she has killed, which convinces Gennaro that she is dangerous to be around.

Act 1

Gennaro and his friends have arrived at the Duke’s palace in Ferrara. The Duke is very suspicious of Gennaro; he believes his wife is having an affair with him.

He meets with his servant and devises a plan to murder Gennaro. Meanwhile, Gennaro and his friends pass by the palace on their way to a party. Gennaro defaces the Borgia crest displayed outside of the palace doors so that the family name of “Borgia” now appears as the lewd Italian word for orgy. 

Lucrezia sees the crest and marches into the Duke’s chamber demanding the culprit be put to death. Little does she know that it was Gennaro’s doing. The Duke immediately accuses Gennaro and orders his men to bring him to the palace. Once there, Gennaro admits to committing the crime, which flabbergasts Lucrezia. She tries to lessen the crime by playing it off as a harmless joke, hoping her husband sets him free. Don Alfonso steps forward and accuses Lucrezia of infidelity, stating that he saw her with Gennaro in Venice just the day before. Lurcrezia pleads innocence, arguing that she did nothing wrong. The Duke, unconvinced, still calls for Gennaro’s death and orders Lucrezia to determine how. Lucrezia is unable to respond. The Duke then pretends to grant Gennaro pardon and shares a glass of wine with him. After Gennaro takes a drink, the Duke leaves and Lucrezia immediately runs to Gennaro’s side.

Knowing full well the wine was poisoned, she makes Gennaro drink an antidote. Before any more danger befalls him, Lucrezia begs Gennaro to flee.

Act 2

Gennaro and his friends attend a party at Princess Negroni’s palace. Gennaro promises Orsini that he’ll never leave his side. The friends celebrate and sing a drinking song as they throw back glass after glass of wine. Lucrezia bursts into the room declaring that she has poisoned their drinks and prepared five coffins for them since they insulted her family. When Gennaro walks out from behind them, Lucrezia’s heart sinks. She thought he heeded her advice and fled. He tells her she has killed six men. Orsini and the four others fall lifelessly to the floor. Gennaro grabs a dagger from nearby and lunges at Lucrezia. She dodges his attack and reveals her identity - she is his true mother.

She asks him again to take the poison’s antidote. Gennaro, looking at his dead friends, chooses them over of his mother and refuses her offering. Heartbroken, Lucrezia mourns the loss of her son, and she too dies.

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