Royal Opera House Cinema, live transmission, seen at FACT Liverpool.
It has been some decades since Rossini’s two-act “Melodramma” after Walter Scott has been performed at the Royal Opera House. In fact it rarely gets an airing at all which is a shame, as it contains some beautiful writing, both for a strikingly lavish romantic orchestra and for its bel canto singers.
There appear to be two major challenges that any company contemplating a production of La Donna Del Lago have to face; finding a well-balanced cast capable of doing justice to the heavily demanding roles and coming up with a suitably effective staging that makes sense of some of the more troublesome plot points. The Royal Opera have certainly surmounted one if not quite entirely both of these hurdles in this musically stunning and visually ambitious production.
The story, plundered from Walter Scott’s 1810 narrative poem, is a sort of four-cornered love triangle between the King of Scotland who falls for Elena, who is in turn in love with Malcom, a sympathiser of the Highlanders who oppose the King. Elena’s father Duglas (an old friend of the King) has however promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to Rodrigo, who is a Highland Chieftain, in the hope of reconciling the clans and restoring peace.
Now pay attention because there might be questions later…
Just in case it gets too easy to follow, the King disguises himself and uses the well-known Scottish pseudonym of Uberto, whilst the part of the burly Malcom is a trouser role, taken by a mezzo-soprano, although this trouser role has no trousers because the men are all in kilts.
Finally, despite the fact that she is apparently in all other ways an ordinary woman, Elena is required to make her entrance from the depths of the lake in which she resides (don’t ask – I have no idea).
To make sense of all this, director John Fulljames has chosen to re-cast the two minor roles of Albina and Serano as representing Rossini and Scott, who effectively create a second, framing plot in mime, giving the impression that they are telling the story to their friends. This makes Albina into a second trouser role (with trousers). It also causes a few crossed wires in the storytelling when she and Serano actually do have lines to sing.
In Dick Bird’s finely detailed, dimly lit opening set there is no lake in sight, as the action begins in what seems to be a cross between a gentlemen’s club and a museum, with an atmospheric painting of a highland scene on the massive, oak panelled rear wall. Our Lady of the Lake appears suspended in a glass display case, her diaphanous costume floating gently about her creating a strangely underwater feel. As she is released from her captivity and awakes, the King swiftly removes his robe and crown so that he can assume the less kingly persona of Uberto and try to woo the beauty he sees before him.
Scott and Rossini slide open the panelling to reveal a cavernous revolving stage which contains a cylindrical stair-tower on which most of the remaining action takes place. This provides height and movement and an effective setting for most of what follows. Various other changes to the set during the interval allow for some picturesque scenes of hanging corpses and dimbowelling of deer during act two.
There are love scenes between Elena and Malcom, unsuccessful wooing from the disguised King, a battle in which Rodrigo is slain and, finally, the unmasking of the King’s true identity before he pardons Malcom and gives his blessing for Elena to marry him. In the closing scenes we are returned to the museum, in which the protagonists are mysteriously reinterred in their display cases.
As a concept aimed at making sense of the difficult plot I am left undecided whether it is fully successful, but it looks great, it is wonderfully executed and it is very atmospheric.
What really makes this production memorable is its outstanding cast. Joyce DiDonato’s Elena is simply beautiful. She tempers her fine coloratura with a legato that gives it a romantic lilt to match the silken playing of the orchestra. Daniela Barcellona is a perfect match and it is probably the duets for the two Mezzos that are the finest parts of the evening. Barcellona even manages to have us believe her alpha-male character despite the theatrical device of the travesty role.
Colin Lee has overcome his earlier illness to take up the part of Rodrigo and he too is in fine voice, making a commanding presence on stage. There is no doubting the pin-sharp accuracy of Juan Diego Flórez's singing, but there were times when he seemed a little forced, as though he felt the need to over-project.
Simón Orfila gave suitable gravitas to his Duglas while the veteran Robin Leggate as Serano and Justina Gringyte's Albina (complete with trousers) managed to vocally survive the incongruity of their schizophrenic transformation into storytelling poet and composer.
The cast was completed by Christopher Lackner and Pablo Bemsch as bard and soldier, and the fine voices of the ROH Chorus.
The Royal Opera House Orchestra under Michele Mariotti were characteristically superb in this, one of Rossini's most romantic and ground-breaking scores
Live transmission to cinemas worldwide gave a huge audience a rare opportunity to see a work that infrequently sees the light of day. Camera work was excellent, giving some welcome views of the full stage among the tighter close up shots. The sound was well reproduced too, with great clarity of the splendid singers as well as good depth to the orchestral texture.
There are four more performances of La Donna Del Lago at the Royal Opera House, with the last in the run on 11th June 2013 and there are a very few tickets remaining.