Wednesday, May 18, 2011

All About the Borgias

I have no doubt that Ingrid Rowland knows more about the entire Borgia dynasty than the assembled wisdom of everyone who contributed to the current Borgias series on Showtime.  So I was not surprised that she should use a post to NYRBlog to skewer just about every aspect of the Showtime production.  I was even pleased to see that she shared my reaction to the anachronistic selections of music, although she turned to Carlo Gesualdo for her example, while I felt that the injection of George Frideric Handel was even more ludicrous.  On the other hand I found that I could make lemonade out of this particular lemon, writing about Harmonia Mundi’s Dinastia Borja project on my national site for

In the grand scheme of things, however, Rowland’s piece reminded me of some of those old Saturday morning cartoons about some poor guy being bothered by a fly and ultimately dispatching it with a howitzer.  Having endured The Tudors, historical accuracy was the last thing I expected from The Borgias.  However The Tudors was deadly serious to the point of tedium, almost as if it wanted to be a 21st-century reincarnation of 19th-century bel canto opera.  From the very beginning The Borgias had a sense a humor;  and, if Neil Jordan was more interested in honoring the legacy of Mel Brooks than all the volumes of Renaissance studies, then he deserves credit, because, whatever faults the series may have, tedium is definitely not one of them.

In this context even the musical anachronisms may be part of the formula.  Perhaps the most important lesson from Jordi Savall’s Harmonia Mundi project is that there was not much distance between music heard in formal settings (such as the celebration of a new Pope) and music heard in the public streets.  Jordan has taken a similarly pedestrian approach to all of his characters;  not only the members of the Borgia family but also all the “nobles” (scare quotes out of respect to Aristotle) who figured in their family saga.  As a result the whole thing plays out as a situation comedy, perhaps with a nod to the knowledgeability of The Simpsons, rather than “historical drama;”  and that is the essence of Aristotelian comedy, no mean feat for anyone working in contemporary theater, even when it is the theater of the small screen.

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