United Kingdom Rossini, La Donna Del Lago: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of The Metropolitan Opera New York / Michele Mariotti (conductor). Relayed to the Duke of York Cinema, Brighton, 14.3.15. (RB)
Cast: in Order of Appearance:
Elena: Joyce DiDonato
Giacomo V: Juan Diego Florez
Malcolm: Daniela Barcellona
Serano: Eduardo Valdes
Duglas: Oren Gradus
Rodrigo: John Osborn
Albina: Olga Makarina
Bertram: Gregory Schmidt
Director: Paul Curran
Set and Costume Designer:Kevin Knight
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Production Designer: Driscoll Otto
Live in HD Host: Patricia Racette
Live in HD Director: Barbara Willis Sweete
La Donna del Lago was one of nine operas which Rossini wrote for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples between 1815 and 1822. It is based on Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem The Lady of the Lake which describes how three men (James V, Roderick Dhu and Malcolm Graeme) try to win the love of Ellen (the eponymous lady of the title). It is set against the backdrop of a civil war in Scotland between the highland clans (led by Roderick) and lowland Scots (led by James). In the opera Giacomo (James) first meets Elena (Ellen) disguised as a hunter, Uberto, who has lost his way and she offers him hospitality. When Giacomo discoverers the identity of Elena’s father he needs to flee but he is clearly smitten with her. We then see Elena trying to maintain her independence in the face of her father’s efforts to marry her off to Rodrigo (Roderick) as she pledges her love to Malcolm. At various points throughout the opera, we also see her urging the warring clans to resolve their differences and trying to instigate diplomatic peaceful solutions and reconciliation.
Given these very interesting and contemporary themes, I thought it was a shame that the Metropolitan Opera opted to give us a rather traditional production. The action was set around Loch Katrine in 16th Century Renaissance Scotland and we see the various clansfolk wearing traditional kilts and tartan. In the opening Act images of various paintings were projected on to a screen at the back of the auditorium to create an idyllic Highland landscape. At the end of the first Act the fires of Civil War are lit and we see the Highlanders rallying around Rodrigo who is using his best rhetoric to rally the troops. In the second Act we move to the court of King James and we see various courtiers dressed in gold fabrics. While the set and costumes were very beautiful to look at, they did little to enhance the drama and the succession of visual images in the first Act in particular almost had a deadening effect.
It has to be said that the music in this opera is very uneven and some of the early numbers in the first Act in particular are banal and sub standard. I was therefore slightly mystified to see some of the performers in the interval making all sorts of inflated claims about the merits of this work. Notwithstanding the very fine singing and musicianship, I found much of the first Act rather dull and lifeless and I think this was partly to do with the quality of the material, and partly with the rather static staging.
The performers for their part did a superb job negotiating Rossini’s highly intricate vocal writing. Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez are the golden couple of the bel canto repertoire and they both gave us rounded portrayals of Elena and Giacomo. DiDonato’s Elena came across as a spirited and principled young woman always trying to defuse volatile domestic and wider political situations. Her voice had an absolutely gorgeous lustre while the coloratura was handled in an adept and unobtrusive way. The final set piece number at the end of the opera Tanti Affetti is one of DiDonato’s favourite encore pieces and she gave an absolutely riveting performance here. The opening of the aria had an ethereal exquisite beauty while the ensuing vocal gymnastics were nothing short of spectacular. Florez captured the lovestruck but regal Giacomo to perfection and gave us a succession of big set piece numbers. The early duets with DiDonato were spirited and sung with romantic ardour while the aria at the beginning of Act 2 was highly charged and expressive and was sorely needed after the inertia of the first Act. The notes at the top of the vocal register presented no problems to this performer while the coloratura was clearly delineated, brilliant and perfectly shaped.
Daniela Barccelona and John Osborn provided sterling support in the roles of Malcolm and Rodrigo. Barccelona presented Malcolm as a loyal and headstrong clansman and she struck a nice balance between the romantic and fiery sides of the character. She commented in the interval about having to contend with the added complication of wearing a kilt in a trouser role but she did an excellent job in bringing out the masculine attributes of the character. For the most part she did a very good job with the vocal pyrotechnics although I felt she was a little bit weaker at the bottom of the register (perhaps not entirely surprising given that the role was originally written for a contralto rather than a mezzo). Osborn did a very good job bringing out the heroic and leadership qualities of Rodrigo and he also did well with the extremely high vocal writing. I did not always feel he was as assured and comfortable with the high notes as Florez but the trio in Act 2 with DiDonato and Florez – sometimes seen as the battle of the tenors – was a tour de force.
Michele Mariotti is an expert in the bel canto repertoire and he kept a tight grip on the proceedings throughout the evening. The tempi were well judged and the balance between the performers and orchestra was spot on. I was struck with the way in which various members of the orchestra were able to enhance and elaborate on the vocal lines and to add colour to some to the set piece numbers. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus did their best with the material Rossini had given them in the first Act and really gave us some glorious singing in the second Act.
Overall, the performers, orchestra and chorus did a terrific job but the production was a little static and uninspiring and the material in this opera is of variable quality.