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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
La donna del lago - opera in two acts. (After the poem The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott)
First performed at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples on 24th September1819
Giacomo, James V, King of Scotland, under the name of Uberto, Rockwell Blake (ten); Elena, June Anderson (sop); Douglas d'Angus, Elenaís father, Giorgio Surjan (bass); Rodrigo di Dhu, rebel leader, Chris Merritt (ten); Malcolm Graeme, Martine Dupuy (mez); Serano, Douglasís retainer, Ernesto Gavazzi (ten) Albina, Elenaís confident, Marilena Laurenza, (mez)
Stage Director, Werner Herzog. Set Design, Maurizio Balo. Costumes, Franz Blumauer. Lighting Design, Gianni Mantovanini
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Riccardo Muti
Recorded live by RAI television, 1992

La donna del lago is the 29th in the sequential list of Rossiniís operatic titles. Written for the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, it was the first opera to be based on any of Walter Scottís romantic works. Although the most famous in our time is Donizettiís Lucia di Lamermoor, Scottís popularity as a source of operatic libretti expanded rapidly after Rossiniís example. By 1840, a mere 21 years after La donna del lago, there were at least 25 Italian operas based on Scott plus others by German, French and English composers (The Bel Canto Operas. Charles Osborne. Methuen 1994. p.94). In my review of Rossiniís Armida of 1817, number 22 in the sequential list, I outlined how the composer was encouraged to produce a spectacular work for the rebuilt San Carlo stage facilities and also to venture new musical forms. Of the six works Rossini composed between Armida and La donna del lago, three were written for the Naples theatre. It was here that the composer could let his musical invention find expression without recourse to the more static and traditional operatic conventions that still pertained elsewhere.

Although none of Scottís works had been published in Italian at the time, Rossini had read The Lady of the Lake in French translation and been inspired by it. He returned to Naples in the beginning of June 1819 and by early September had completed the composition. At the premiere on September 24th the opera had a lukewarm reception that warmed at subsequent performances. The work remained in the San Carlo repertory for a further twelve years. Within five years of its composition La donna del lago was heard all over Italy and in Dresden, Munich, Lisbon, Vienna, Barcelona, and St. Petersburg, Paris and London. The Act 2 rondo, Tanti affeti, roused Naples audiences when sung by Isobel Colbran, Rossiniís mistress and in 1822 his wife. She was the foremost dramatic coloratura soprano of her generation and that is the voice type the role demands. By 1860 the work was forgotten until its revival in Florence in 1958. It was heard at the Camden Festival, London, in 1969 and at Houston in 1983 in a production that was also seen at Covent Garden. The Rossini Opera Festival at Pesaro presented it in 1983. The recording from Pesaro, featuring Katia Ricciarelli as Elena, Lucia Valentini Terrani as Malcolm and Samuel Ramey as Douglas in a very affecting overall performance was issued by CBS on their Masterworks Label (M2K 39311 nla). An audio recording from this sequence of La Scala performances appeared on the Philips label (PH 438 211-2 nla). I believe the CD set will be re-issued shortly to join the other recordings on that label, at mid price, of Rossiniís Neapolitan Opera Seria. Like the Pesaro performance, this recording uses the critical edition made by the Rossini Foundation of Pesaro.

The story is set in 15th century Scotland at a time of border warfare and insurgency. Elena lives with Douglas, her father, near the shores of Loch Katrine. Although her father has promised her to the rebel chief Rodrigo di Dhu, she loves the young highlander Malcolm, a Ďtrousersí role. After rowing over the Loch Elena meets and offers shelter to Uberto who had become separated and lost from his hunting party. Uberto is in fact the King against whom Douglas and Rodrigo are in conflict. He falls in love with Elena and later gives her a ring promising that if ever in difficulty or danger it will secure the help of the King. After the defeat of the rebels and the death of Rodrigo Elena seeks out Uberto and discovers his true identity. The King keeps his promise, pardons Douglas and gives Malcolm Elenaís hand in marriage. The opera concludes with much rejoicing.

The opera opens without an overture, the only one of the composerís operatic works to do so. Instead, Rossini seeks to conjure up the atmosphere of the Scottish Highlands in sixteen bars of orchestral introduction. A light-hearted chorus follows this as Elena appears in her boat on the Loch and sings the lovely O mattutini albori (Act 1 Ch 3) that is her motif with even and well supported tone. In this production large cliffs surround the Loch and there is little sign of shoreline or woods. As she alights from the boat one gets the impression that she is walking on water. This basic rather dark and somewhat overpowering set serves, with slick additions of stairs and wall décor, as Elenaís home where she gives Uberto shelter. However, the whole has a pervading gloominess. No colour is added by the costumes that are universal peasant with not a sign of plaid. Neither the dress nor the ridiculous looking headgear gives any indication of Scottishness or period. The slickness of the scene changes, the direction of Werner Herzog, together with Rossiniís music, the solo and choral singing and Mutiís vibrant conducting keep the watcher and listener interested. As Elena, June Anderson keeps a pure vocal line with secure legato, plenty of tonal colour and secure coloratura. Hers is an affecting performance that is effectively the vocal rock of the whole. Her Tanti affeti of the Act 2 conclusion (Act 2 Ch. 14-15) is a coloratura tour de force and is rapturously received ... deservedly so. As Uberto/King James, Rockwell Blake starts a little unsteadily and has moments of dry tone at the start of Act 2. However, he is soon into his stride in each case. The tessitura of the part uniformly lies fiendishly high with florid runs that he brings off with aplomb. Thereís even vocal elegance as he declares his ecstasy at finding Elena (Act 1 Ch. 9.) and also in his Act 2 O fiamma soave (Ch. 2). As Malcolm, Martine Dupuy sings most beautifully with even tone and fine legato (Act 1 Ch. 11). Her singing of Ah! Si pera is even and expressive whilst in its cabaletta Fata crudele, e rio her coloratura is secure and without aspirates; a highlight of Act 2 (Ch. 8). She hasnít quite got the vibrant strength in her chest tones of Marilyn Horne or Lucia Valentini-Terrani the presence of which can give some dramatic credibility to the masculinity of the role. In this respect she also has the disadvantage of a small rounded very feminine face whose features are accentuated by a head covering which looks like a gold version of that worn by Lawrence of Arabia in the films of my childhood. Whatever the limitations of dress, or femininity of appearance, Martine Dupuy as Malcolm and June Anderson as Elena sing together most beautifully and expressively in the Act 1 love duet (Ch 15). As Elenaís father Douglas, Giorgio Surjan is physically imposing and carries his draped fur coat well. Vocally he is steady (Act 1 Ch. 13) but lacks the sonority of Ramey on the CBS recording. The rebel leader Rodrigo di Dhu is sung by the dramatic coloratura tenor Chris Merritt. The demands of this role may well have contributed to the neglect of this work in the regular repertoire. The range is very wide with florid high-lying coloratura display passages descending quickly to declamations requiring strong chest tones (Act 1 Ch. 16-17). No one would suggest that Chris Merrittís voice is a thing of beauty, but he encompasses the vocal demands with meaningful expression albeit with the odd missed note. His rather bulky physical presence doesnít add to his amorous pretensions and nor does his costume. His headgear would raise a laugh in any production. There are many opportunities for the La Scala chorus to show their strengths and their contribution adds to the enjoyment, particularly in the highly dramatic conclusion to Act 1 (Ch. 21-22).

The accompanying booklet gives a brief synopsis. References to meetings in the forest refer to the original stage directions rather than what is on stage here. There is a full libretto in Italian and like the synopsis there are no cross-references to the Act ĎChaptersí which would have been helpful. There are of course English sub-titles available to make the action easier to follow. The stage direction keeps the whole drama moving and the TV director catches the group and individual actions and drama well. This DVD gives a rare opportunity to experience a work of musical individuality and interest in a well-sung and conducted performance. It is mature Rossini at his best and most demanding of participants. I welcome its availability and recommend it to other enthusiasts of Rossiniís opera seria that are, through their musical quality and dramatic potential, slowly gaining a foothold in the repertoire.

Robert J Farr

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