United Kingdom Rossini, La donna del lago: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Michele Mariotti. Live broadcast to the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, London, 27.5.2013. (JPr)
Elena: Joyce DiDonato
Uberto: Juan Diego Flórez
Albina: Justina Gringyte
Serano : Robin Leggate
Malcom: Daniela Barcellona
Duglas: Simón Orfila
Rodrigo: Colin Lee
Director: John Fulljames
Set designs: Dick Bird
Costume designs: Yannis Thavoris
Lighting design: Bruno Poet
Choreographer: Arthur Pita
Originally the Royal Opera wanted to revive a 2010 production from Paris but that wasn’t received very well at its première and so they replaced it with this new one by John Fulljames, the Royal Opera’s associate director. This staging hasn’t fared much better! To modern audiences Rossini means The Barber of Seville and little else, with what are called his ‘serious operas’ mostly neglected, so any chance to experience one of them should not be ignored. Unlike Verdi or Wagner there is little very drama though there is, as here, an opportunity for a really excellent actor-singer to create some sense of character amongst all the vocal pyrotechniques.
Rossini’s 1819 La donna del lago is one of ten that he composer wrote for Naples, all genuine rarities these days apart from Mosè in Egitto. It is one of the earliest truly Romantic operas and based on Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘The Lady of the Lake’. We are in sixteenth-century Scotland, when the Highland clans, led by Douglas (Duglas), the father of the eponymous heroine, rebels against the tyranny of King James V. Though something of a mystery figure in her own right, Elena has no fewer than three men interested in her, including the King himself (in the guise of Uberto), her beloved warrior Malcolm (Malcom) and Rodrigo, the chieftain she is betrothed to in order to unite the Highlanders.
I suspect Fulljames’s first production for the Royal Opera’s main stage probably worked better for this live cinema broadcast than in the theatre. It seemed all rather cluttered and restricted to the front of the stage – the reason for this might have been because I think I spotted a prompt box once again. We are in Edinburgh in the 1820s at a meeting of the Royal Celtic Society. It is presided over by Sir Walter Scott himself (duplicated in the opera by the character Serano) with Rossini (doubled by Albina) also being present to wallow in heavily romanticised Highland tales of derring-do. (The Scots themselves have subsequently taken issue with Scott’s depiction of their country’s history, but that is another matter.) As their story unfolds, Scott and Rossini stage-manage the proceedings for the top-hatted gentlemen present. On the edges of the stage are some boxes that will house a typically Rossinian on-stage band at one point and the panelled back wall initially has a projection of a suitably craggy Highland scene.
Amongst a number of display cases with regalia and various artefacts there is a large one where an other-worldly looking ‘The Lady of the Lake’, Elena, seems initially to be floating, thus recreating the famous Millais painting ‘Ophelia’. She is eventually helped out of this and then the story begins. When the stage clears it goes all ‘Braveheart’, with outlines of bare trees and hints of a castle with steps that characters seem to go up, just to come back down again. Rodrigo, (whom the singer Colin Lee described as an ‘alpha male’) leads his testosterone-driven, women-groping, tartan-clad rebel army from the front and cannot keep his hands off Elena, who often grips her wedding dress as a symbol of her plight. At the end of Act I a ram is gutted so the men can smear themselves in blood to emphasise their potency before they set off to confront the King’s men. One side of the stage ‘Scott’ is playing war games and on the other, Rossini is carving a haggis … yes, it was that sort of production! In the opera house, I can imagine it might have all looked rather cluttered – and the dual-period costume designs would lead to some confusion as to what was going on between Elena and her three suitors – but with Sue Judd’s close-up direction for the screen some of this was resolved for the cinema audience.
What we saw concentrated on the principals standing and delivering in the way only four of the best bel canto singers in the world can. The King (Uberto) is a strange one for Juan Diego Flórez to be singing as it is not a very appealing character – and the hanging carcasses of his slain enemies we see towards the end of Act II confirms we are not expected to have much sympathy for him. He sings it because, of course, it is fiendishly difficult and only he probably currently possesses the perfect style and vocal flexibility to succeed in this role. And succeed he does, but unfortunately he is no actor and his performance is very ‘wooden’. He sings throughout with stock gestures straight from the concert platform … and with his eyes often firmly closed.
Rossini’s Neapolitan operas frequently feature two important roles for the tenor voice and as Rodrigo, Colin Lee gets the short straw in having to battle it out against Flórez and often gives as good as he gets even though he does not sing with his ease or innate lyricism. Lee however makes for a very realistic barbarian – though I’m not sure if that is actually a compliment? There is a high point for the tenors in a protracted number at the start of Act II when they repeatedly trade top notes to thrilling vocal effect.
In one of the most impressive casts of recent years at the Royal Opera there was not a weak link, though I do not always believe what I hear in these cinema broadcasts. Daniela Barcellona with a pair of Bradley Wiggins’ sideburns was very convincing as the noble Malcom; she is a coloratura contralto and sang impeccably. Simón Orfila was a dignified Duglas and the veteran Robin Leggate and Jette Parker newcomer, Justina Gringyte, brought ‘Scott’ and ‘Rossini’ to life whilst making assured contributions as Serano and Albina. The chorus were their usual reliable selves and it was all jollied along by the musical accompaniment of the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Michele Mariotti.
However good all the other singers were it was Joyce DiDonato’s triumph as ‘The Lady of the Lake’ that made it at all bearable. There was no artifice in the way she brought Elena to life and there are no weaknesses to her incredible mezzo voice. All the formidable hurdles she is set by Rossini were overcome resplendently. The best is kept till last and she was simply more stunning than ever in the her final aria ‘Tanto affetti in tal momento’ where she reacts to the turn of events that has seen Uberto revealed as a magnanimous King through the pardoning of her father and the blessing of her marriage to Malcom.
La donna del lago has an irredeemably ludicrous story line and possibly cannot be staged successfully in the twenty-first century. It is just a showcase for the florid singing typical of most of Rossini’s heroes and heroines – and as Elena, Malcom and the King became museum exhibits once again at the end of the opera, I realised it had been worth seeing, especially with a cast such as this. Finally, I am pleased to say after all the issues that affected the last Royal Opera House relay at the Empire, Leicester Square, I can report that sound and picture quality was perfect this time.
Check www.roh.org.uk/cinema for details of more screenings.