By Judith Malafronte
NEW YORK — It took nearly 200 years for La donna del lago to come to the Metropolitan Opera, although New York audiences had first heard Rossini’s opera seria sensation just ten years after its 1819 premiere, and more recently in performances by the New York City Opera and Opera Orchestra of New York.
The Met’s show, a co-production with Santa Fe Opera, where it was heard in 2013, opened on Feb. 16, with British stage director Paul Curran making his company debut. Also in debut were set and costume designer Kevin Knight and projection designer Driscoll Otto. Knight’s perspective black-box set, with steeply raked stage, draws focus to the back wall, where a pale video landscape of clouds and lake replace what must have been spectacular views afforded by the open back wall of Santa Fe’s theater. The rest of the unimaginative set consists of a lakeside hut that rises from below the stage and a red-carpeted throne room for the happy ending, supported by similarly uninspiring costumes of kilts and peasant dresses.
Composed during Rossini’s tenure at the San Carlo Opera House in Naples, La donna del lago showcased international stars at the top of their game, including two superb tenors and Isabella Colbran, the soprano who was to become the composer’s wife. The Met’s cast features bel canto luminaries in mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and tenor Juan Diego Florez, along with rising star tenor John Osborn. The run continues through March 14, a matinee performance scheduled for broadcast live on regular radio, the Met’s SiriusXM satellite channel and at cinemas in HD.
Because the San Carlo also had a first-rate orchestra, Rossini showcased the solo winds, demanded more from the chorus, and pushed the traditional aria forms in new directions while still giving the singers and the savvy audience just what they wanted in the vocal fireworks department. There are off-stage bands, onstage bands and large brass ensembles. A striking chorus of bards accompanied by harp and plucked strings was just one of Rossini’s many attempts to imbue his score with Scottish flavor.
The libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola, based on Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 poem The Lady of the Lake, started something of a mania for operas based on the works of Scott, although only Donizetti’s Lucia di Lamermoor is in regular repertory. An imagined Scotland, with its feuding clans, crude heroism, and windswept landscape, provided the 19th-century equivalent of a Game of Thrones fantasy. Elena, the Lady of the Lake, is out rowing one serene morning when she encounters Uberto, a wandering hunter who is actually King James V, known for dressing down in order to spy on his people.
The entire first scene is delightfully elusive, lacking a closed-form overture and joining an opening chorus to Elena’s barcarolle, the lilting melodic descents of which are used throughout the work to evoke the peace of the lake. In what could have been a spectacularly beautiful entrance (in the original production la Colbran was seen moving across the lake in a skiff), Joyce DiDonato popped jauntily over a hillock. Presumably she docked safely and ditched her oars out of sight.
Elena sings of her love for Malcolm Graeme, a situation complicated by her father’s intention to marry her off to the local clan chieftain Roderick Dhu. When the war escalates, the disguised and enamored king gives Elena a ring that will secure protection for her. Kilted clansmen, color coordinated to help the audience, raise their spears in rhythm and bang them against the ground (as indicated in Rossini’s score) while a comet flashes across the sky. Curran introduces politically charged images such as burning crosses, but the chorus of bards, daubed with blue paint and performing circle rituals, looks like a pre-game bunch of college football fans.
Rossini’s opera enjoyed a long period of popularity until interest in florid singing and opera seria conventions faded. A few of the composer’s comedies lived on, especially coloratura soprano-centric adaptations of Il barbiere di Siviglia. But as the cultivation of such voices waned, most bel canto operas, especially Rossini’s Neapolitan pieces with their demand for two heroic-coloratura tenors, became impossible to cast. During the bel canto revival of the 20th century, however, La donna del lago was one of Rossini’s first serious operas to take the stage, in an important production and recording by the Houston Grand Opera in 1981.
DiDonato brought her expected poise and earnest commitment to every moment, using ornamentation skillfully for atmosphere and characterization. Some guttural attacks and heavy declamation brought an unwanted bite to recitatives, but she kept the final showpiece, “Tanti affetti,” understated with carefully crafted variations, making the most of expressive chromatic ascents and descents. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, who debuted at the Met in 2001 as Adalgisa in Norma, brought natural stage charisma to the role of Malcolm with impeccable runs and arpeggios, rich low notes, and beautifully varied vocal colors.
Barcellona and DiDonato blended deliciously in the lyrical love duet “Vivere io no potrò,” and Barcellona’s subtlety and personal warmth contrasted sharply with the demeanor of tenor Juan Diego Florez, whose every move seemed calculated to impress. Singing with more fullness than in the past, Florez brought glitter and dazzling precision to the role of James V and commanded the many tempo changes of his second act cavatina “O fiamma soave.”
In the dark tenor role of Roderick Dhu, John Osborn provided the requisite contrast to Florez, and what’s the point of having two virtuoso tenor roles if they don’t get a competitive duet? (It’s actually a trio with Elena.) Florez and Osborn hurled high C’s back and forth in one of the evening’s peak moments. As Elena’s father, Douglas, bass Oren Gradus sounded muffled, and his boring aria, not written by Rossini, was ineffectively staged and delivered.
Conductor Michele Mariotti led confidently, drawing soft delicacy from the strings and giving space to the many wind and brass solos. He maintained buoyancy in the rolling duet “Cielo! in qual estasi” and kept martial moments energetic without brittle sound. The splendid Met chorus was attentive, and provided suitable pageantry to the tableau-like final throne room scene.
Judith Malafronte is a lecturer in Music at Yale University, and she writes for Opera News, EMAg, and other print and online outlets, while continuing a career as mezzo-soprano, continuo player, and vocal coach in the New York City area.