"Regardless of what your perspective on history and its uses (or lack therof), this is an outstanding night at the opera, probably one of the best yet this season".
Rossini’s La donna del lago premiered in 1819 in Naples a month late as a replacement for a never-realized Spontini opera (he was busy with the Prussians). Falling squarely in the middle of his career (but towards the latter-half of his oeuvre), the opera is now undoubtedly recognized as highly influential work for its innovative experimentations with sound, space, unity, and local color. More broadly, La donna del lago was also the first opera to be based on a work by Sir Walter Scott, at the time signaling one of the genre’s strongest shifts yet towards Romanticism.
John Fulljames’s production is curious; clever in conception but not quite effective dramatically. All the action is presented as metatheatre, with the opera’s action occurring behind a proscenium of sorts that is meant to evoke what seemed like a gentleman’s club, library, or museum: a bourgeoisie setting for an historical tale of loyalty, deep love, and nationalism. Honestly it was very clever to begin with Elena locked in a glass display cabinet, as though the narrative—and her character—were somehow vivified with the music for the present.
Nevertheless, these types of intellectually overdetermined productions rarely work as theatre; still, a very clever idea for re-imagining the way in which the modern era appreciates its history. For the production to be more effective in revival, perhaps it would be useful to question the extent to which we invent our history to fit modern molds rather than simply affirming its existence. Additionally (spoiler alert!), to linger on the dead, hanging bodies in the finale rather than quickly covering them up might remind audiences that history is written by the victors, often at the high expense of minority cultures or even subcultures, as Howard Zinn, in his A People’s History of the United States has taught Americans for example.
As the museum fixture and eponymous Lady of the Lake, Elena, Joyce DiDonato sang with the gusto and commitment audiences have come to expect from her. Rossini can often feel dramatically inept from our modern perspectives, ones that unavoidably are benchmarked with the extreme fares of Verdi and Puccini. What is striking about DiDonato is her ability to take even the most tired of operatic conventions and make them feel new: her characterization revealed a deeply loyal young woman in love caught in a—believable—however extraordinary situation. She not only makes the fantastic music come alive with ease and elegance, but breathes life into each character she inhabits. DiDonato’s “Tanti affetti,” it goes without saying, was breathtaking.
The role call of operatic stars continues with Juan Diego Flórez who played a characterless King of Scotland. Seriaacting has never his strong suit—he’s much better in the comique or buffa roles such as Le Comte Ory--but he nevertheless sang passionately, his voice ringing with its trademark clarion tone into the house. His chemistry is DiDonato is also unquestionably good, and the pair sang an excellent first act duet (“Scendi nel piccol legno”) together.
In a stunning debut, Daniela Barcellona was a compelling Malcom who was not only dramatically convincing en travesty but also impeccably well sung. Barcellona’s lower range is particularly impressive and, combined with an agile coloratura, makes for thrilling listening.
Less convincing was tenor Michael Spyres as Rodrigo, who was covering for the billed Colin Lee. His voice has a thick baritonal quality to it up to about high-E, and beyond that it gets much thinner and lighter. In other words, it was somewhat inconsistent at times. Nevertheless, he held his own and it was delightful to hear him battling with Flórez and DiDonato the Act Two trio.
Elena’s father Duglas was capably sung by the strong baritone Simón Orfila, who made his debut at the Royal Opera in the role.
Throughout the evening, Michele Mariotti brought warmth and brilliance to Rossini’s score in his debut at the Royal Opera. Mariotti was particularly good at bringing out the clever atmospheric effects, setting the scene musically from the very first horn calls.
Regardless of what your perspective on history and its uses (or lack therof), this is an outstanding night at the opera, probably one of the best yet this season.
Photo: Bill Cooper