Rossini Donna 764308

Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
La donna del lago, melodramma in two acts (1819)
Libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola after Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake
Elena: Salome Jicia
Uberto (Giacomo V): Juan Diego Flórez
Malcolm: Varduhi Abrahamyan
Rodrigo: Michael Spyres
Duglas: Marko Mimica
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna/Michele Mariotti
Damiano Michieletto (stage direction)
rec. live, 2016, Rossini Festival, Adriatic Arena, Pesaro, Italy
C Major 764308 DVD [2 discs: 168]

La donna del lago, premiered at Naples in 1819, one of Rossini’s finest scores, is infrequent on modern stages. It was the first of many operas which composers of the primo ottocento based on Walter Scott. His poetic ballads are not in vogue any longer, so let me recall the story.

Lovely young Elena, our lady of the lake, lives by a Loch with her father Duglas, a rebel exiled from the court of Scotland’s King James (Giacomo) the Fifth. Duglas has promised Elena to fellow rebel Rodrigo, but she loves another rebel leader, Malcolm. Giacomo, disguised as Uberto, meets Elena during a hunt and falls in love. She cannot return that love, but he gives her a ring (“given to me by the King”) to use if ever she needs Royal assistance. Confronted by Rodrigo, Uberto fights him in a duel, as the King’s forces and the rebels engage in battle. Rodrigo is killed. At Elena’s audience with the King, whom she recognises as Uberto, she pleads for the life of the defeated rebels, her father Duglas and her lover Malcolm. The King pardons both, and blesses the union of Elena and Malcolm.

The libretto and the setting give rise to something close to a through-composed opera ahead of its time. Richard Osborne in his Master Musicians volume on Rossini (J. M. Dent & Sons) suggests that La donna del lago is sometimes almost proto-Wagnerian. Philip Gossett wrote a note for the premiere CD recording of the opera in Pesaro in 1983. He says that Neapolitan audiences were more tolerant of innovation than those elsewhere, and that Rossini could make more use of the chorus, orchestra and stage bands. The Viking Guide to Opera writes that Rossini was “fully in control of his expanded musical style”, with “longer ensembles and a corresponding decrease in the prominence of solo arias”. If you know Rossini for a few familiar comic operas, you will find this score very enlightening.

Damiano Michieletto’s production was first presented in 2016 at the annual Rossini Festival in Pesaro, the composer’s birthplace, but is only now released on film. It is musically very strong, but the staging, a success on its own unusual terms, perhaps inhibits a truly affecting presentation of the work as written. La donna del lago is, in Gossett’s words “the most Romantic of all Rossini’s Italian operas”. This is not just a matter of its time of composition, opening the door to 19th century Italian opera. More important is the background in Walter Scott, and even in James Macpherson’s bogus but influential Ossianic poems, which librettist Tottola admired. There even is romantic allure in the topography of Scottish lakes, hills and forests. Missing, however, is what Scott addressed in the Lay of the Last Minstrel:

O Caledonia! stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,
Land of the mountain and the flood

The single set presents Elena’s once imposing but now delapidated home, which nature has invaded with tall grasses. A long staircase descends on one side, and there are sundry furniture items, a bed included. Paolo Fantin’s design is not unimpressive, but the same set for indoor and outdoor scenes shortchanges the atmosphere of both. It is also often lit so low that is barely permits singers to find their way around. Act Two opens in near darkness, presumably to represent the cavern in which Elena is sheltering from the battle around her. Act One, in which the libretto tells us Elena is crossing the lake in a small boat, opens with her in her grass-surrounded bed, recalling Auden’s line “Out on the lawn I lie in bed”. Costumes are generic last century, with rifles for the rebels, except for a royal suit and coronet when Uberto reverts to being Giacomo. When Elena visits the King in the last scene, some chandeliers descend to suggest a palace – and give some welcome illumination.

This all actually works well up to a point, and we do not want tartan and kilts, the wrong sort of Scott’s influence. Michelietto’s concept presents the whole performance as a dreamscape. We see a silent prelude at the outset, with the now aged Elena and Malcom in their modern home, with little left of their former affections, it seems. They attend and observe much of the action, and occasionally intervene, wondering at the events and perils of their young lives. They return to this home at the end. A large photograph of King Giacomo is still on a side table, which Malcolm in that silent prelude had poured water over. His final act in the postlude is to discard the necklace which the King gave him as a token of friendship. Malcolm might have shown a little more respect for this wife, who had refused a King’s hand for him, and for the King who spared his rebellious life. Here is a case for Elena choosing the wrong hero and living to regret it.

Neither Scott nor Tottola even hint at any of this. It is a cynical view of a romance, but a good example of what we nowadays might, with trepidation, see described as “a bold reimagining”. We have here is an opera told in flashback, but – unlike Britten’s Turn of the Screw and Billy Budd – this is not in the score. The production has supplied the framing. It is Damiano Michieletto’s production, so it is rarely dull.

The singers are very fine, and several of the best numbers are outstandingly well performed. Both tenors live up to their formidable reputations, and Michael Spyres even gets an ovation to match that of the supremely popular Juan Diego Flórez. Salome Jicia has the measure of the rather tricky role of Elena, who juggles three suitors and needs appropriate responses to each. She also sings superbly, with the tone, range and flexibility for her solos and for her ensemble contributions. In the trouser role of Malcolm (Elena’s true love though maybe not in this production), Varduhi Abrahamyan has the vocal qualities to invest even less interesting numbers with appeal; both Scott and Tottola have been accused of undercharacterising Malcolm. Marko Mimica, who portrays Duglas, does not have the most alluring voice, but he sings well and has a stage dignity that makes his character sympathetic.

The very fine chorus and orchestra relish their many stirring and colourful moments. Conductor Michele Mariotti has a genuine respect for mature Rossini’s opera seria. He invests it with appropriate weight and seriousness, alert to issues of pace and balance. There is good sound and filming, although the latter may have somehow added to the gloom of the lighting rather than just capturing what the audience saw. The booklet has a track listing, notes and synopsis in English, German and French. (The synopsis claims that Elena is married to Rodrigo.)

One for the La donna del lago short list, then, especially if one knows the work and is open to the director’s unique view. This release does not have the field to itself: there are strongly cast rivals from Milan and from the Met. At La Scala in 1992, Ricardo Muti and director Werner Herzog had a cast led by June Anderson, and the tenor roles went to Rockwell Blake and Chris Merritt (on Opus Arte; review). At the Met in 2015, a year before the Pesaro production, Mariotti and Flórez appeared alongside Joyce DiDonato as Elena and John Osborn as Rodrigo (on an Erato Blu-ray disc; review). The C Major film comes both as a Blu-ray disc and as two DVDs, without any extras. One Blu-ray disc costs less that two DVDs (and picture quality is better). This may be just the excuse to buy that entry-level Blu-ray player.

Roy Westbrook

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Other personnel
Albina: Ruth Iniesta
Serano/Bertram: Francisco Brito
Elena (as an old woman): Guisi Merli
Malcom (as an old man): Alessandro Baldinotti
Chorusmaster: Andrea Faidutti
Set designer: Paolo Fantin
Costume designer: Klaus Bruns
Lighting designer: Alessandro Carletti
Video director: Paolo Filippo Berti
Video details
Filmed in HD
Format: NTSC 16:9
Sound formats, PCM stereo and DTS 5.11
Region code 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Korean