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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792–1868)
La Donna del Lago (1819) [146.55]
Elena – Sonia Ganssi (mezzo)
Uberto/Giacomo – Maxim Mironov (tenor)
Malcolm – Marianna Pizzolato (mezzo)
Rodrigo – Ferdinand von Bothmer (tenor)
Douglas – Wjotek Gierlach (bass)
Albina – Olga Peretyatko (soprano)
Serano – Stefan Cifolelli (tenor)
Prague Chamber Choir
Tubingen Festival Band
SWR Radio Orchestra Kaiserslautern/Alberto Zedda
rec. live, Kursaal, Bad Wildbad, Germany, 31 October, 2, 4 November 2006
NAXOS 8.660235-36 [73.29 + 73.26]
Experience Classicsonline

At first sight, the allocation of roles to voice types in Rossini’s La Donna del Lago is rather puzzling. The heroine Elena (mezzo-soprano) is in love with Malcolm (mezzo-soprano), but her father (bass) wants her to marry Rodrigo (tenor). Uberto (tenor) is also in love with her but he is actually the King of Scotland in disguise. The only soprano role is the small one of Albina.

To understand the casting you have to know something of the opera’s history. It was written for the San Carlo Theatre in Naples for which company Rossini wrote quite a few operas. The heroine was written for the soprano Isabella Colbran (also Rossini’s mistress). Colbran was ageing and Rossini wrote parts for her which flattered her good points. The tessitura is low for a soprano and her parts often eschew elaborate fioriture, a fact which Rossini uses to help characterise the role of Elena.

The two tenor parts were originally written for tenors with very contrasting voices. Rodrigo was first performed by Andrea Nozzari who had a rather baritonal voice and who had sung the title role in the first performance of Rossini’s Otello. Uberto was written for Giovanni David, who had a higher, lighter voice than Nozzari and who had sung the role of Rodrigo in Otello.

On this new recording, from the Rossini in Wildbad Festival, the casting does not quite reflect the original cast. Sonia Ganassi as Elena, is a mezzo whose voice does not sound wildly different from that of Marianna Pizzolato as Malcolm. Similarly two tenors Maxim Mironov (Uberto) and Ferdinand von Bothmer (Rodrigo) are, to a certain extent, possessed of contrasting voices but I would have liked a far greater differentiation between them. I am not certain that von Bothmer’s voice could be described as having baritonal elements. A good example of the contrast required in the Nossari/David parts is the casting in Jesus Lopez-Cobos’s account of Rossini’s Otello in which Jose Carreras sang the title role and Salvatore Fisichella sang Rodrigo. In that case the two tenors have markedly differing voices which makes the vocal casting work well.

The problem is finding singers who can manage the fearsome roles in Rossini’s Neapolitan operas. Opera companies have to be glad if they can cast the pieces at all. This disc is based on live performances from the Rossini in Wildbad Festival and I imagine that the current cast worked very well in the opera house, where you have visual clues to help differentiate the singers.

In fact, Wildbad have managed to assemble four singers who cope brilliantly with Rossini’s requirements. If this super-budget priced disc tempts you to explore one of Rossini’s most fascinating operas then you will not be disappointed. Granted though, that none of the singers have quite the vocal sheen that the best interpreters could bring to the roles.

Maxim Mironov certainly does not have the vocal quality of Juan Diego Florez, but he brings to the role a brilliant technique and a lovely fluency in the fioriture. His voice is sometimes inclined to edginess, though this may be the recording. However when he is executing roulades in such a dazzling fashion then one is inclined to forgive him.

Similarly Ferdinand von Bothmer as Rodrigo is inclined to be a little effortful at times but Rossini requires the singer to indulge in such outrageous vocal gymnastics that you must be amazed that anyone sings the part perfectly.

I was slightly less impressed with the women. Marianna Pizzolato has a lovely dark voice and a beautiful line. Her way with the fioriture can be lovely, though she is sometimes a bit heavy. As Elena, Sonia Ganassi, sings with a noticeably lighter tone than Pizzolato, but she has a rather darker voice than ideal. If I had to have a mezzo in this role then let it be Joyce diDonato or Ann Murray. It does not help that Ganassi’s vibrato rather compromises her fioriture; she does not have as much centre to her voice as Pizzolato. But, Ganassi does make a touching heroine and many people will find her performance entirely acceptable.

As  her father, Douglas, Wojtek Gierlach is a little untidy, but he does not let the show down.

La Donna del Lago was the first opera to be based on one of Sir Walter Scott’s works. Its opening scene, where Elena offers to row Malcolm across the lake, is a wonderful evocation of one of the great early Romantic moments. Rossini’s opera lies in a fascinating hinterland, half-way to full blown Romantic opera. Like Guillaume Tell, another opera in which depiction of locale and the character’s interaction with it are important, La Donna del Lago lacks any real love scenes, even though the heroine is being pursued by at least three different characters. The opera is full of emotions and passions, but not quite in the obvious way you would expect. And Rossini goes a long way towards creating the archetypal Romantic evocation of locale.

Alberto Zedda, in charge of the Wildbad forces and a noted Rossini authority, obviously loves the opera judging not only by his performance but also by his article in the CD booklet. Zedda keeps his forces under a reasonably tight rein. Though he does allow the music to relax where necessary, you can imagine a conductor who would allow a little more space in the performance. That said, the performance certainly does not feel driven and Zedda allows his singers a decent amount of leeway when performing Rossini’s vocal gymnastics. Only in some of the big ensembles do the limitations of live performance show. However Zedda’s direction is one which, I think, rather minimises the Romantic aura and draws on the affinities with early Rossinian opera. The SR Radio Orchestra Kaiserslautern play well for him.

There is no libretto, but there is a good, detailed track-by-track synopsis. The opera is recorded live and contains quite a bit of applause. None of it obscures the music, but you must be prepared for the more bravura arias to receive extensive applause at their conclusion.

If I had a limitless budget then I would buy one of the full price CD sets of this work and if I owned one of these already, then I would not rush out to buy this set. Like the Opera Rara recording, it uses a good modern edition of the text. But at Naxos prices and on just two discs, you can afford to experiment and this is a good set with which to experiment. 

Robert Hugill 



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