New York performing arts events vie for attention among a wealth of possibilities in late fall. The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s first foray into Romantic opera, “La donna del lago” (1819), seen Saturday, Dec. 19, makes a case for continuing to mine neglected bel canto treasures. It also proves there’s so much more to Rossini than the rightly treasured “Barber of Seville.” American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato—who seemingly can do whatever, wherever—took center stage and garnered rapturous applause. So did her leading tenor, Ohio native Lawrence Brownlee.
Italian Maestro Michele Mariotti, a Rossini specialist yet a true artist in any opera he conducts, led the Met Opera Orchestra with crisp precision while lovingly supporting the singers onstage, whether soloists or the massive Metropolitan Opera Chorus. Despite the score’s lush complexity, he kept the orchestra from covering the singers, keeping a taut balance between stage and pit.
Rossini’s librettist based “La donna del lago” on Sir Walter Scott’s considerable epic narrative poem from 1810, “The Lady of the Lake.” It records the somewhat historical events of six days of military and romantic intrigue in which King James V of Scotland quelled a rebellion whilst seeking true love disguised as a commoner—something the monarch, according to legend, was wont to do.
The historical King James V of Scotland was quite an active fellow. In his brief 30 years he fathered three children by lawful marriage and spawned at least nine (known) illegitimate offspring—mostly males, many named either James or John—with numerous aristocratic paramours. So Sir Walter Scott’s depiction of his amorous adventures pursuing Ellen Douglas, the eponymous lady of Lake Katrine, was not much of a stretch.
Poor Ellen Douglas. Pursued by two suitors, she loves another. Her well-meaning father, James Douglas (Duglas d’Angus), comes across as overbearing. The king’s former tutor, he has now aligned himself with rebels against the crown. All the men onstage want to protect and guide Elena in ways she neither needs nor prefers. I’ll handle this myself, thank you.
King James (Giacomo), disguised as the lowly Uberto, bluntly broaches his attraction to Elena but she rebuffs him. Rumors of war reach his ears. He gives her a ring she can use to gain royal protection. Elena’s heart beats exclusively for Malcolm Graeme (“Malcolm Groeme”), a faithful former courtier. Wait a minute. An operatic heroine in love with the good guy? That is how we know this is a fictionalized account.
You can probably guess what happens. Elena and Malcolm twitter romantically, with sighing optimism. Dad arranges for her marriage to Roderick Dhu (Rodrigo di Dhu), also on the outs with the king, for a murder he committed at court. Duglas supports Rodrigo’s uprising against the monarch. War erupts. Rodrigo, true love’s obstacle, dies in battle. Malcolm and Duglas end up captured by Giacomo’s army. Elena uses Uberto’s ring, which she takes to Stirling Castle. She pleads clemency for Malcolm and Duglas before “Uberto,” now decked out in royal garb, revealing his true identity.
But let’s not spoil the ending for you, eh?
Joyce DiDonato, who is everywhere nowadays, can make a believable case for even the most implausible heroine. In every performance she veritably becomes the personage she portrays, and she conveys the character’s predicament as real and significant, projecting her character’s plight as relevant to people of all epochs. And that’s just the acting, which is splendid.
The singing is what’s incredible. Radio announcer Ira Siff said of Elena’s music that “the coloratura passages are death-defyingly complex and fast.” Not a problem for Joyce DiDonato, who dispatches such vocal pyrotechnics as if second nature, with a spirited bring-it-on boldness, which adds musical conviction to the dramatic portrayal. The cavernous Met threatens to swallow her smallish voice, but Maestro Mariotti made certain the audience could hear her every trill, roulade, glissando and staccato glint.
Ah, Lawrence Brownlee! Convincing as royalty, he arguably is the undisputed king of lyric tenors with redoubtable coloratura facility. Though others may rival his limpid vocal agility and amazing delivery of florid lines, no voice in this category comes anywhere close to the gorgeous openness and expansive warmth of his, of burnished bronze and shimmering gold. His gracious stage presence and dignified bearing are merely manifestations of his personality, to judge by any interviews with him. His winning appeal makes it difficult to remember that this isn’t the character to root for, where the leading lady’s heart is concerned.
American tenor John Osborn made much of Rodrigo di Dhu’s vigorous, swashbuckling vocal tricks. His entry in Act I’s finale prompted spontaneous applause after the recitative alone; granted, Rossini packed it with ample opportunity for blazing display, and John Osborn certainly showed what he’s got. The ensuing aria—much slower, allowing the antiheroic tenor hushed expressive contemplation—was bookended by the already-applauded recitative and the energetic cabaletta with chorus that, had Rossini witnessed it performed by this tenor, might have been persuaded to keep Rodrigo alive till the opera’s end, to afford him another opportunity to dazzle.
Brooklyn-born bass Oren Gradus as Duglas d’Angus, the character with the lowest voice, did not disappoint. His instrument has a rich darkness to it, without thickening, and mellifluous, flowing legato is his byword.
The only non-American among the principals, Italian mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, did wonders as Malcolm Groeme, a trouser role—or, in this case, a kilt role. A tall woman, she dwarfed most of her costars, and deployed her rich, plummy voice to exciting effect. “Mura felice,” her Act I bravura aria, was a showstopper, and the show did indeed stop for the heavily sold audience’s avid acclaim. Kudos to wigs and makeup for making this glamorous beauty into the most believable man in recent memory, complete with five o’clock shadow.
Paul Curran’s production is handsome and spare but complete. The final scene is radiant with the help of Kevin Knight’s glittering satin and lace costumes of yellow and cream. Duane Schuler’s lighting kept everything mostly dark, so the final scene in Stirling Castle’s throne room provided a gloriously welcome change.
Rossini’s opera is interrelated with other works appearing this season at the Met. For one, King James’ only surviving legitimate child was Mary Stuart, who became Mary, Queen of Scots. Donizetti’s opera “Maria Stuarda” (Jan. 29–Feb. 20) focuses on her struggles, ending, at least in operatic lore, with her tragic demise by the scheming of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII.
Of course, King Henry features prominently in Donizetti’s opera about his second wife, Anne Boleyn (“Anna Bolena”; remaining performances: Jan. 5 and 9). In Sir David McVicar’s handsome production, the three- or four-year-old Elizabeth appears early in Act I beside her mother, Queen Anne, in a silent role.
As an aging monarch, Elizabeth is back in Donizetti’s opera about the ill-fated Duke of Essex, the man who got away, “Roberto Devereux” (March 24–April 19). Though these characters bear little or no lineage with King James V, like him, Elizabeth confers upon Essex her signet ring and instructs him to avail himself of it for protection whenever his life is in jeopardy.
“La donna del lago” certainly is a welcome oddity: a showpiece for two mezzo-sopranos and two tenors. It completely satisfies. Who needs a soprano or a baritone? With any hope, this production from last May, revived for merely five performances this month, will gain a toehold in the Met’s repertory and become a frequent visitor to the stage.
Just two performances remain this season, both this week, starting Tuesday, Dec. 22.
“La donna del lago,” through Dec. 26
The Metropolitan Opera
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