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In Review > International

La Donna del Lago

LONDON
Royal Opera House
5/17/13

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The opening scene of Fulljames's Donna del Lago staging, set at a meeting of the Celtic Society in Edinburgh
© Bill Cooper 2013
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DiDonato and Flórez, Elena and Uberto at Covent Garden
© Bill Cooper 2013
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Covent Garden Rossinians Flórez and DiDonato
© Bill Cooper 2013

A favorite work in the early nineteenth century, Rossini's Donna del Lago (1819), like almost all of his operas other than Il Barbiere di Siviglia, slipped from view as fashions changed in the late-Victorian era. At Covent Garden, where it was regularly staged between 1843 and 1851, it then vanished until a 1985 production starring Frederica von Stade, Chris Merritt and Marilyn Horne. A new coproduction by Luis Pasqual, scheduled for the 2012–13 season, was rejected by the ROH following its poor initial showing in Paris in 2010. John Fulljames — the company's new associate director of opera, first lieutenant to the Royal Opera's director of opera, Kasper Holten — was hastily commissioned to replace it, the result being unveiled on May 17. 

Now in his mid-thirties, Fulljames achieved a high reputation with his work with the Opera Group, which he founded in 1997 and directed until he was appointed to his Royal Opera position; the company offered the premieres of a number of chamber-scale pieces and revived similarly scaled works from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; he has also won success with full-scale stagings for Opera North, Scottish Opera and a number of continental companies.

Together with set designer Dick Bird and costume designer Yannis Thavoris, Fulljames came up with a take on Rossini's opera that emphasized its role in building up a view of Scotland for its initial audiences — essentially refracted through the fictionalized histories of Sir Walter Scott, whose 1810 poem The Lady of the Lake provided its literary source. Both the poem and Scott's later novels swept Europe, creating a fashion for all things Scottish and imprinting on the early Romantic consciousness pictorial and narrative images that would in turn inspire numerous works of art in all available media; La Donna del Lago was the first Italian opera to be inspired by Scott, but many others would follow, in what quickly became a Europe-wide cult.

The Scott connection certainly deserved (and received) exploration in articles in the production's program booklet; but whether its full-scale visualization onstage made much sense is questionable. The staging began at a meeting of the Celtic Society in Edinburgh, whose chairman was Scott himself. The top-hatted gentlemen members (the women of the chorus cross-dressed) perused various items in their collection, notably the opera's heroine, Elena (sung by Joyce DiDonato), who was encased in glass. She was subsequently freed, however, to take part in the action, though this was constantly observed by the society's members, including Scott (who, in the shape of tenor Robin Leggate, doubled in the minor role of Serano) as well as (non-historically) Rossini (Albina in the opera, sung by mezzo Justina Gringyte), both of whom pushed and prodded the other characters along their route. 

The bulk of the highland setting of the action was played out on a spiral staircase located in a wood made up of bare tree-trunks — a curiously ugly presentation of the loveliness of the Scottish locale that so moved Romantic artists. The main problem was that Scott, Rossini and company simply got in the way of the action, masking the narrative itself, in which the eponymous heroine is wooed by three different lovers before finally being allowed her heart's desire in her union with the doughty warrior Malcom (thus spelled in Andrea Leone Tottola's Italian libretto), sung by Daniela Barcellona.

Fortunately, Rossini's action is mostly encapsulated in the singing, which proved to be of a generally high quality. DiDonato's practised management of Rossini's florid writing was solid and expressive, meeting its technical demands while reaching out, with personal warmth, to the audience. Juan Diego Flórez sang Uberto (the Scottish King James V in disguise), his facility in coloratura and high notes as exceptional as ever, his tone and shaping of phrases as graceful as his stage manner. On the first night, Michael Spyres — due to join the cast later on in the run — stood in for an indisposed Colin Lee as Rodrigo, the wild highland chieftain whose amorous intentions toward Elena are not well received. The baritonal origins of his tenor were obvious in his lower register, and his top notes rarely shone like Flórez's — something particularly obvious when they alternated identical phrases in duet; but he generally acquitted himself more than honorably. In the musico role of Malcom, Barcellona exhibited her enriched mezzo tone, while her extraordinary facility in punching out meaningful coloratura was as impressive as Flórez's. Spanish bass-baritone Simón Orfila delivered the part of Duglas — Elena's father, and the king's former tutor, though now his opponent — dutifully if rather dully. 

Conductor Michele Mariotti — born, like Rossini, in Pesaro — showed a fair stylistic command of the score, though a sense of momentum from one number to another was absent. Everyone, however, was well received at the curtain call — with the exception of the production team, which was roundly booed. spacer 

GEORGE HALL

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