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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
La donna del lago - two act opera (1819) [165.00]
Joyce DiDonato – Elena (The Lady of the Lake)
Juan Diego Flórez – Uberto/Giacomo (King James V)
Daniela Barcellona – Malcolm
Oren Gradus – Duglas
John Osborn – Rodrigo
Eduardo Valdes – Serano
Olga Makarina – Albina
Gregory Schmidt – Bertram
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus/Donald Palumbo
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Michele Mariotti
Paul Curran – Production Director
Kevin Knight – Set and Costume Designer
Duane Schuler – Lighting Designer
Driscoll Otto – Projection Designer
Video Director – Gary Halvorson
rec. live, 2015, The Metropolitan Opera, New York
Filmed in 1080i; High Definition 16.9
Sound formats: a) LPCM Stereo 2.0ch 48kHz/24 bit; b) Dolby Digital 5.1, 48 kHz
Sung in Italian - Subtitles: Eng, Fr, Gr, It, Sp
ERATO 2564 604699 Blu-ray [165.00]

This staging of Rossini’s dramatic two act opera La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake), featuring the exceptional talents of Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez, was recorded live. Scottish director Paul Curran oversaw this co-production with the Santa Fe Opera — the first time the Met has staged the opera. Biographer Charles Osborne wrote “It is certainly music to soothe the savage beast.” DiDonato considers the opera as “a landscape for spectacular bel-canto expression of emotion.” A number of singers over the years have tried to smooth out the coloratura demands of Rossini’s score — not here. Curran’s production ensures the coloratura is as sharp, knotty and thrilling as possible. I received a note from the director that explained “I am very proud indeed of the performances in the production - they make, what can be in danger of being, a very static piece come vividly to life! My very intention was that it should be a platform for well defined characters and relationships by world class performers.”

After the great success of Rossini’s two act opera Eduardo e Cristina in Venice, Rossini wrote the melodrama La Donna del Lago which is an operatic adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem The Lady of the Lake set in the Trossachs, Scotland. Rossini had seen a translation of The Lady of the Lake in French and felt inspired to write an opera on the subject. Rossini used an Italian libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola. This was to be the first Italian opera based on Scott’s works. Scott’s Scottish Highland romantic tales were beginning to become extremely fashionable in Europe at that time and were to inspire a substantial number of operas from composers such as Donizetti, Flotow, Nicolai, Mercadante and Bizet.

The world première took place at Teatro San Carlo, Naples, 1819 and was an immediate success. Like many other operas of the mid-19th century period La Donna del Lago disappeared from the standard repertoire owing mainly to the decline in taste for bel canto opera. After almost a hundred years of neglect Tullio Serafin conducted a revival in Florence in 1958 around the time a bel canto revival was bubbling.

At this point an outline of the opera might prove useful. Set in 16th century Scotland during the reign of King James V the libretto tells the story of Elena (Ellen Douglas). Elena lives near Loch Katrine with her father Duglas (Douglas). A rebel exiled from the court Duglas has promised his daughter to Rodrigo. Elena has three suitors: Giacomo V (King James V) who is disguised as Uberto, the rebel chieftain Rodrigo di Dhu (Roderick Dhu) and Malcolm Groeme (Malcolm Graeme) a young chieftain (a former noble of the King) with whom she is in love. During a hunt Giacomo V uses the identity of Uberto to meet Elena and seeks shelter at Duglas’s house. Battles take places between the King’s forces and the Highland rebels. Subsequently Rodrigo is killed in battle and Elena has an audience with the King (whom she recognises as Uberto) who declares his love for her. Elena successfully pleads to the King for the life of her father and Malcolm. The King pardons Duglas and Malcolm giving his blessing to Elena to marry Malcolm. Scotland is finally at peace. Justly famous for his overtures, Rossini omits one in this opera employing a 16 bar orchestral prelude heard as the curtain opens.

Congratulations to director Paul Curran and his set designer Kevin Knight for cleverly achieving a taut, relatively straightforward staging of Rossini’s opera with the focal point being a heather strewn hillside. At the rear of the set is a colourful highland vista with scenes of ever-changing skies such as dawn breaking, nightfall and rolling mist that look vividly clear. In fact the rear wall serves as a screen with back projections. It’s a series of often spectacular video projections of live footage actually filmed by video designer Driscoll Otto on location at Loch Katrine in Scotland. According to Paul Curran he wanted a programme of this live footage “making it look more like a Munch painting - slightly more abstract to be in line with the set.” As the action progresses the hillside centrepiece alters slightly but not dramatically primarily with the addition of some trees, a tent, banners, burning crosses and even a number of heads of beheaded warriors elevated on tall poles. Duglas and Elena’s cottage with an open front is also seen as part of this outdoor setting. Customarily Elena appears on the loch travelling in and stepping off a skiff - a production difficulty that director Curran does away with completely. Also omitted is the cave in the first scene of act two. The only other main set is the King’s Palace with red carpeted steps up to a throne which is made to look additionally regal by the costumes rather than merely the palace design itself. Knight has also designed the costumes that reflect the general romantic notion of that period in the Scottish highlands. Tartan-clad Malcolm, Rodrigo, Duglas and the clansmen wear belted kilts which evoke the look of Mel Gibson playing William Wallace in the film Braveheart. Mainly seen in blue clothing Elena is dressed in a long skirt and a bodice over blouse often with a heaving bosom. Uberto wears brown leather jacket, trousers and boots with a white blouse and as the King a gold coloured, long frock coat, not forgetting a crown.

Many reasons have been put forward why the opera has not achieved a greater hold on the repertoire yet it has an interesting plot and an abundance of high quality, often dramatic music. To do it full justice requires four top class artists, a pair of mezzo-sopranos and tenors. At the Naples première Rossini’s beloved Isabella Colbran the Spanish born prima donna (who he was to later marry) was chosen for the lead role of Elena. Other renowned performers, all Italians, were cast namely Giovanni David (Uberto), Rosamunda Pisaroni (Malcolm) and Andrea Nozzari (Rodrigo). Artists of this calibre, experienced in coloratura, have been traditionally difficult to find. In addition the view has been expressed that following the opening scene the series of entrance arias impedes the flow of the narrative. Making virtually all the opera an outdoor setting with little scenic variety certainly hasn’t helped its cause over the years.

In the title role lyric-coloratura mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has widely sung Elena in London, Paris, Geneva, Milan and Santa Fe and her accomplished musicianship is immediately evident. From act 1 on a heather-strewn heath by the side of the loch, the flame-haired Elena is musing and her enchanting aubade O, mattutini albori is sung gloriously by the American with an abundance of tender expression and natural warmth. The absolute peak is the brilliant showpiece, Elena’s rondo Tanti affetti. Her renowned cabaletta Fra il padre, e fra l’amanta dominates the concluding scene in the throne room of the King’s palace. Interviewed about the final scene DiDonato acknowledges the profuse technical challenges for the soloist and its importance in the scenario “It’s an incredible moment of theater!” An accomplished actress, heroine DiDonato’s voice is in stunning form throughout presenting a glittering well controlled coloratura, elegantly ornamented and all sung with confidence and pleasing expression.

In the role of Giacomo (King James V) disguised as Uberto, Juan Diego Flórez excels giving a dazzling performance that is both potent and highly accomplished. At the camp, with Uberto holding the Scottish flag and sprig of heather the second act cavatina Oh fiamma soave is full of emotion and sharply characterful. A master in this type of role, Flórez’s voice is in formidable condition for this, some of the finest music Rossini wrote for the leading tenor of the day. On screen Flórez is seen pushing his voice hard but the sound he produces is incredible: vibrant, strongly projected and as smoothly focused as the challenging coloratura demands allow. A highlight is the moving duet Scendi nel piccol legno where disguised as Uberto, Flórez is totally captivated by the innocent beauty of Elena who he is seeing for the first time. The rather coy couple provide a moving scene of deeply tender expression.
As the tartan clad Rodrigo Di Dhu rebel chief of the Highlanders, John Osborn gives a wholehearted performance of the sort we have come to expect from this excellent American tenor. Osborn who has sung Arnold in William Tell with Antonio Pappano to great acclaim is very much at home in Rossini. Standing proudly on the hill between his two lines of kilted warriors with their claymores raised Rodrigo in his cavatina Eccomi a voi miei prodi makes a considerable impression. Osborn’s purposeful voice is well up to the task demonstrating a sturdy projection and leaping with relish to the high notes. In an interview Osborn mentions his concern over the low notes in the role but he needn’t have worried as he negotiates them resolutely and with proficiency. Another highpoint is Uberto’s duet with Elena Alla ragion, deh rieda when she wants his friendship and he is captivated by her beauty and tries to kiss her. The duet develops into an exciting trio when Rodrigo appears at the hill camp and the two tenors undertake a vocal swordfight that is electrifying and decorated with breathtaking high Cs. A truly spectacular trio Misere mie pupille has been described by DiDonato as “one of the most thrilling moments, I think, in all of opera.”

The breeches role of Malcolm is played by indomitable Italian mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona. Richard Osborne astutely observed that the character of Malcolm “is a curiously passive lover … under-characterised by Scott.” Certainly unlike Uberto and Rodrigo, Malcolm is not as openly passionate, is less demonstrative and more thoughtful. Barcellona plays the part with all her trademark assurance. From act 1, and set in Elena’s cottage, there is Malcolm’s outstanding scene and cavatina Elena! O tu, che chiamo! followed by his elaborate cabaletta O quante lacrime. Also memorable is the duet between Elena and Malcolm: an andantino Vivere io non potrò set in the cottage with the embracing couple vowing their abiding love for each other. In act 2, Malcolm, exhausted and blooded after battle, sits by a thicket and delivers the awesome aria Ah! Si pera with its weighty cabaletta Fata crudele, e rio!, a stirring conclusion to the penultimate scene. Barcellona controls her weighty voice admirably, displaying capable and forceful coloratura. Another valuable contribution is from American bass Oren Gradus as Elena’s father Duglas d’Angus convincingly expressing his desire that she should marry Rodrigo with his forceful act 1 cavatina Taci, lo voglio, e Basti!

Coached by Donald Palumbo the Metropolitan Opera Chorus is in fine unified form. I especially enjoyed the act 1 chorus Qual rapido torrente with the highland warriors rousing each other to fight. Worthy of praise too is the striking act 1 victory hymn Già un raggio forier popularly known as the Chorus of Bards. The accompaniment featuring the harp and pizzicato violas and cellos is surprisingly light and effective which allows the unity of the male chorus to be heard to considerable effect. Although it does develop in weight this chorus is better suited to a bedtime cup of Horlicks rather than being used prior to bloody battle. Rossini’s music is a special interest of Italian conductor Michele Mariotti who makes a valuable contribution towards the success of this genuinely involving drama. Playing with assurance and polish the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is responsive to Mariotti’s sensible tempi.

Filmed live in 2015 at The Metropolitan Opera, New York during its première run the video direction by Gary Halvorson is generally excellent. Cameras are actively employed and never allowing the viewer to experience fatigue or monotony. As I have come to expect from The Met: Live in HD series the 1080i High Definition picture quality is vividly clear. There is a choice of sound format employed on this Blu-ray disc: Dolby 5.1 and LPCM Stereo 2.0ch 48kHz/24 bit. Surprisingly the release does not utilise a DTS-HD Master Audio option. Nevertheless, the sound quality is vibrant with clarity, detail and a decent balance. The Blu-ray is presented in a blue plastic case which includes a booklet listing the cast and production team together with a helpful synopsis. On the downside in the booklet there is no detailed indexing of the acts, scenes and arias and no essay is provided.

The bonus material comprises backstage interviews undertaken by Patricia Racette with DiDonato, Flórez and Barcellona paired with Osborn. Although reasonably interesting, in truth this short and slight footage doesn’t amount to much. Not including an interview with director Paul Curran, who after all brings valuable insights, is a missed opportunity.

Beautifully performed and filmed this presents La Donna del Lago at its finest.
Michael Cookson



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