John Fulljames’ new production of La Donna del Lago by Rossini opened last night at Covent Garden. The piece itself is based on a narrative poem of 1810 by Walter Scott, which took only 9 years to make it into operatic form, with La Donna premiering in Naples in 1819. This gives some sense of the popularity, not only of Scott himself, but the general themes of Scott’s work that chimed so well with the Romantic appetites of the contemporary audiences: real characters, perhaps a bit of supernatural intervention, brooding landscapes, the odd Gothic ruin. The production’s muse, if I’ve read it correctly, is the early 19th Century creation of the ‘myth of Scotland’, which was entirely entwined with these themes of the Romantic movement, and amongst whose proponents Scott sits pre-eminent. The first act was a little opaque, but it came together nicely at the end.
Starting in a Victorian museum setting, principal characters are ‘stuffed’ in glass cases, along with regalia of state and Jacobite knick-knacks. Well-to-do Victorians mill about and then, á propos of nothing, the cases are opened and the characters freed to begin to live the drama, framed always by the museum-cum-library proscenium, and with the minor character of Albina transformed into Scott himself (I assume) pacing around watching and occasionally intervening in the periphery of the action.
The rebels are a suitably rough and low sort of lot, whilst the King is glamorous and triumphant, his ‘civilising’ influence being demonstrated through his clemency towards the hero, inspired by the heroine’s steady love for him, and probably recognising that he’s not entirely convincing in his rebelliousness. “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily,” to borrow Oscar Wilde’s semi-definition of ‘fiction’, and in this case it is the fiction of Scotland that is uppermost in the drama.
As you can imagine, there is a lot of tartan, culminating ultimately in a huge tartan backdrop for a royal vignette as setting for the return of the characters to their glass cases. The framed set worked reasonably effectively, within it a rotating staircase set for Act 1, and fragments of the same with stylised forest backdrop for Act 2. Some of Act 1 remained a little baffling, with the piece itself slightly flaccid, but there was a tighter dramatic focus to Act 2 in both the music and the on-stage presentation. The coming together of the Victorian/’Jacobite’ interplay at the end had a certain power, the cautionary message about believing in ‘Scott-land’ becoming clearer, and allowing us to revel in the story without engaging with any problematic historical pseudo-detail. However, it had taken some time to get us there, so it does beg the question about how effective it was overall; that said, I really rather enjoyed it. Lighting throughout was suitably brooding and, a bit of muddy chorus footwork aside (crowned by a thoroughly middle-class bit of rape and pillage by the barbarian chorus at the end of Act 1), it was by-and-large a non-interventionist sort of production.
It certainly did not deserve the boo-ing and hissing that greeted the production team from sections of the audience who clearly come to the opera to give their brains a rest. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the sort of literal, pretty, symbol-free production like the current Tosca and 1 is the excessively interventionist rethinking of a work (such as, perhaps, the ugly, incoherent mess of their Rusalka), then it was rather middle-of-the-scale, frankly: non-too-taxing, not unattractive, and at least engaged honestly with the piece and the period.
Anyway, the attraction for most of us had always been what we expected to hear, rather than what we came to see. There was little cause for disappointment there. Juan Diego Flórez deployed strength of voice over his sweeter, soft singing to portray King James V, but it was singing of his customarily astonishing and consistent beauty and power, effortlessly integrating his edge-of-seat runs and roulades. As his tenor opponent, Rodrigo, Michael Spyres stood in for an ill Colin Lee, displaying an astonishing, but complicated sort of voice: the range Rossini requires of him is bonkers, frankly, and he had a powerful and rich baritonal register, but the switch up into the high territory was marked by a not-entirely-comfortable gear change. He displayed a suitably rough-and-ready sort of characterisation, particularly contrasting with Flórez’s more foppish royal persona.
Whilst the piece is described as written for soprano Elena and mezzo Malcom, in practice we had two mezzos in the roles of hero and heroine. Both had remarkable things to sing, and sang them remarkably: Daniela Barcellona gave Malcom’s more rounded heroics (when compared to rough, villainous Rodrigo) some grit along with beauty and impressive strength and security in the pyrotechnics. The contrast between her voice and DiDonato’s, Barcellona’s being a little more forthright, perhaps more steely, was effective in bringing the characters together.
DiDonato’s contribution was some of the most captivating, beautiful singing I can recall hearing in a long time. Peattie, in New Kobbé, speculates that the century of neglect for La Donna del Lago, between about 1860 and 1958, may have been due to the essentially lyrical nature of the role , “until the brilliant final aria which puts it out of consideration for most sopranos or mezzos”. Well, most certainly not this one. The last 10 minutes of last night’s La Donna del Lago were some of the most heart-stoppingly bewitching singing I can bring to memory: aided by sensitive accompaniment from conductor Michele Mariotti, the unaccompanied sections of Tanti affretti seemed to be spun on featherlight threads of sound, with daringly expansive tempi chosen, the final boisterous sprint to the finish then all the more thrilling. An absolutely hold-your-breath moment, and not the first that had been delivered that night.
Overall, Mariotti seemed to have judged Rossinian pacing and dynamics well, combining fizz and romance, and the orchestra played with the requisite sparkle. The onstage band was a bit of an odd choice, I’m guessing the deliberately ‘coarse’ sound intended to increase the sense of separation between the action and the observers in the ‘framing device’, but not too problematic. Other singers made strong contributions in smaller roles, some a little woolly when compared to these remarkable principals, but not intrusively so.
A great night of singing in an interesting production of a relative rarity. Fantastic. And now back to Don Carlo…