Giacomo Rossini - La Donna del Lago
Royal Opera House, London 2013
Michele Mariotti, John Fulljames, Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Flórez, Daniela Barcellona, Simón Orfila, Colin Lee, Justina Gringyte, Robin Leggate, Christopher Lackner, Paolo Bemsch
Sky Arts 2
An awful lot of critics got terribly hung up about the framing structure that director John Fulljames imposed on top of the already bewildering plot of Rossini's La Donna del Lago, but really it's neither here nor there. I'm not sure that anything could clarify the intricacies of the opera's plot or render it meaningful. What really matters in La Donna del Lago is the presentation of Rossini's marvellous score and whether the staging allows the singers to deliver the full lyrical content of the work. The Royal Opera House's production unfailingly and emphatically does just that.
It's clear that much of the historical context of Walter Scott's original verse drama set in the Scottish Highlands has already been reduced to functioning merely as a colourful backdrop for a romantic love triangle - as it often is in bel canto operas - so any efforts to reinsert political or cultural context is not going to add much to the work and is probably going to be lost on the viewer. Opening in what looks like a museum, with Elena frozen in a glass display case, it's certainly not obvious to a viewer who doesn't have an explanatory programme in front of them why two of the character Serano and Albina have been recast as museum attendants. It's by no means obvious either that they are meant to represent the original author Walter Scott and Rossini, but whether you know this or not doesn't seem to matter much.
Even if the whole operatic fashion for adapting the works of Walter Scott and the Highlands (see Donizetti's Lucia de Lammermoor for another example) might seem unfathomable to to tastes today, there is a recognition in this setting that the dramatisation of history can still speak to us across the ages, and that opera has a special way of breathing life into the characters and personalities in the past. At the most basic level, if you want to view the intent of Royal Opera House as merely a suggestion that La Donna del Lago itself is a museum piece, taken out of its case, dusted down and presented to a modern audience to admire its beauty, that's an adequate way to approach the work. La Donna del Lago is an object of considerable beauty, one that certainly still has something to give to an audience.
Although you could say the same for at least a dozen of his operas, La Donna del Lago is one of Rossini's most underrated, or at least underperformed works. What's different about this one is that there is a genuine effort by the composer to break away from the format of opera as a series of linked numbers and set-pieces in order to find a more through-composed response to the lyric qualities of Scott's verse. Much of the rhythm of La Donna del Lago adheres to the familiar Rossini fast-slow-fast-faster-slow arrangements, but this is one work where the music is more dramatically attuned to the high-flown romantic and patriotic sentiments of the work.
Often working at a breakneck pace to tight deadlines, Rossini wasn't beyond reusing melodies from other operas and even applying them to settings that they weren't originally composed to suit, but all the music in La Donna del Lago is original, tailored specifically for this work and - as far as I know - never reused elsewhere. More than that, the music, even by Rossini's standards, contains some of the composer's most beautiful melodies that weave in and out through the whole work in various guises and speeds. It's clearly of a whole, ebbing and flow, swirling to the demands of the drama and the emotional content.
Admittedly however, the quality of the drama itself in La Donna del Lago is questionable. Even after watching the work and then reading the synopsis, I still can't figure out what kind of political allegiances and enmities underpin its Highland drama and setting. It's not hard however to recognise that the usual bel canto conventions for a romantic love-triangle, with hidden or lost identities, sometimes revealing mystery figures to be members of royalty in disguise. Is there any more depth to the work than this? Perhaps a director like Graham Vick could reinterpret it for a modern audience, but John Fulljames relies just on the post-modern framing device and then lets the music and the singing speak for itself. It works because on that level alone, this is an impressive piece of unquestionable quality.
Criticisms of the stage production aside and recognising that the drama is rather confusing, the critics didn't however fail to notice where those qualities lie. And it would be hard not to when the Royal Opera House production has two of the finest singers in the world in this repertoire on the stage - Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez. DiDonato is simply stunning here as Elena. I don't think she has any serious competitors within this repertoire at the moment. Her technique is impressive, her phrasing beautiful, the sentiments expressed with force, delicacy and nuance. It's an utterly flawless and compelling performance that sends shivers down the spine.
Flórez also knows no equal in the bel canto tenor repertoire, at least within the lighter and comic end of the range. Dramatic Rossini is more of a challenge, but he's just as impressive here. It's been noted that his voice is changing and perhaps darkening, but he can still hit all the high notes without any apparent effort. Daniela Barcellona is clearly carving a niche for herself in the specialised contralto Rossini trouser roles, and is simply fabulous here as Malcolm. These are all roles that are highly challenging to sing and dramatise, but critical to the success of the work in terms of making the opera really come alive and you couldn't ask for a better cast more capable of making that work. Other than perhaps asking for the other roles to be filled with strong singers, and that's what we get here, with Colin Lee in particular deserving a mention as Rodrigo.
The musical direction is also vital for La Donna del Lago and Michele Mariotti takes charge of the orchestra of the Royal Opera House to deliver much of the beauty of the work. I've heard a recording of the 2012 La Scala production, which features much of the same cast and was originally scheduled to transfer directly over to the Royal Opera House. It's conducted there by Roberto Abbado in a rather more pacy, enthusiastic and more idiomatic Rossinian manner, while here it is a little more restrained. Even so, the full force of the work and its stunning conclusion come over tremendously well. Whether La Donna del Lago would be half as good or even work at all without a singer of calibre Joyce DiDonato is debatable, but with the right singers, this shows just how good Rossini can be.